Monday 13 March 2023

It Could Happen to You (1994)

Director: Andrew Bergman
Writer: Jane Anderson
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez, Wendell Pierce, Isaac Hayes, Seymour Cassel, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins and Red Buttons

Index: The First Thirty.

Let’s point out up front that this isn’t close to my kind of movie. I’m not a fan of romcoms and I’m not a fan of feelgood movies. Had I not seen any of Cage’s First Thirty before starting this runthrough, I might expect to be drawn to a thriller like Face/Off, a neo-noir like Red Rock West and a no budget indie comedy like Never on Tuesday. I wouldn’t expect to like this.

But I did. I had a blast with it, even though I could write the entire script in my head from the poster and the synopsis. There isn’t really a surprising moment to be found, even though writer Jane Anderson tries a little to find one, but that doesn’t matter. The sentimentality is on the nose throughout and the leads are as inherently likeable as they could be. It simply works, even on viewers who don’t expect to be worked on by feelgood romcoms.

We’re introduced to Cage’s character, a cop called Charlie Lang, by Isaac Hayes, narrating like he’s a one man Greek chorus called Angel. Charlie’s a good cop and I mean a saintly cop. He helps the neighbourhood kids with baseball swings. He delivers a baby on a bus. And when he sees a blind man halfway across a street, he carries him the rest of the way. He’s literally New York’s finest.

The only catches are that he’s poor and he’s married to Rosie Perez who doesn’t want to be poor. She’s Muriel and she presses him to buy a lottery ticket because the state prize is up to $64m. He even waits in line for it, annoying his partner Bo, who wants Burger King. And that’s why they try the Ideal Coffee Shop over the road instead, where their waitress, Yvonne, is Bridget Fonda.

They’re called to an incident pretty quickly, so they only have time for coffee and Charlie settles the bill. He has cash for the drinks but nothing left for a tip, so he promises that he’ll return with one tomorrow. If his ticket wins, he’ll give her half the prize; if it doesn’t, he’ll double the usual tip.

The reason we have a movie is that he wins. And he wins big: a $4m cut of the jackpot. The “Honey, I’ve got something to tell you” scene is priceless. It could easily be summed up by a pair of lines—“I gave her my word!” “Do you love me?”—but it’s better that that. The scene where he tells Yvonne, whom he’s never met before the previous day, is even better.

And so we’re off and running. I should point out here that this was inspired by a true story, but it isn’t that true story. Robert Cunningham and Phyllis Penzo knew each other before they split a lottery ticket and they each picked half of the numbers. That was a decade earlier and both continued to be married to their spouses. Cunningham stayed on the force. Penzo spent three more years as a waitress before retiring early. None of the drama in this film happened to them. And there’s lots of drama in this film.

This was Jane Anderson’s debut feature as a writer, though she’d written some TV episodes and a TV movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, so she wrote it right out of the feelgood movie textbook with a quintessential romance that a na├»ve teenager could see blossoming and most of the supporting characters certainly do, but the leads don’t. That’s one of the main reasons why this works so well.

Charlie clearly shouldn’t have ever married Muriel because they don’t have a single thing in common. Money was always going to break them up. After the payout, Muriel goes on the shopping spree she’s always wanted, starting with a mink coat. Yvonne splurges on a jar of macadamia nuts.

And Yvonne clearly shouldn’t have married Eddie Biasi, in the form of Stanley Tucci. He’s a slimeball who ran up her credit card and ran for the hills, meaning that we first meet her in bankruptcy court instead of the coffee shop.

Charlie and Yvonne don’t hit it off that first day, because she’s still reeling from the judge’s verdict, but they’re two peas in a pod and it’s a true joy watching them find in friendship the enjoyment neither found in marriage.

It’s not all quirkiness either, like when they show up at the subway with a bucket of coins to pay everyone’s way home for the night. It’s often serious, like when Yvonne buys Ideal to turn into Yvonne’s and establishes a table for anyone who can’t afford a meal, with Charlie’s name on it.

I won’t spoil this, not that the synopsis isn’t enough for you to see where every plot thread is going to end up, but I will sum it up with the scene when Charlie catches up to his wife on a Millionaires Club river cruise.

Charlie got off, saw Yvonne, helped her deal with her cab driver, missed the boat, so they went to dinner together, chatted, danced and connected. When he gets back on the boat, after a substantial passage of time, Muriel’s still lost in the sleazy financial advice of Jack Gross. Charlie’s actually rehearsed his speech to explain where he’s been but never delivers it because he realises that she doesn’t realise he wasn’t there all along. “We’re like different channels,” he tells Yvonne. “I’m on CNN. She’s the Home Shopping Network.”

Cage is the nicest guy who ever lived in this movie. He tried all sorts of roles before finding his nice guy routine in Honeymoon in Vegas, a movie directed by this film’s director, Andrew Bergman, and I enjoyed what he did there. He varied it a little in Amos & Andrew, Red Rock West and Guarding Tess, before utterly outdoing their niceness here. I have to say that I didn’t expect this. I knew he had a fondness for going batshit insane and, through this project, I’ve learned it was because of his appreciation for surreality. Did anyone expect that he would be such a great screen nice guy? I doubt it, but he is, even if the gonzo Cage probably hates that.

He’s only matched in niceness by Yvonne, as Bridget Fonda has exactly the same approach, though it wasn’t quite as unusual for her, Point of No Return notwithstanding. Both do it with effortless charm, which takes them through a wild ride of circumstances, none of which I’m going to talk about here because you deserve to take that ride with them, every schmaltzy feelgood curve of the way.

There’s a better film in this story, one that isn’t so ruthlessly predictable, but it would be a tough job indeed to find better leads. In fact, it would be so tough that nobody should try.

Now, I guess I should buy a lottery ticket. It apparently could happen to me.

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