Thursday 16 March 2023

Trapped in Paradise (1994)

Director: George Gallo
Writer: George Gallo
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey

Index: The First Thirty.

I must say that I had reservations going into this film and they were reinforced by some of the early scenes, but it won me over in the end as a film not as stupid as it looks and with a lot more heart. No, it’s not great. It’s a goddamn Christmas movie, for Pete’s sakes, but it’s not as bad as Birdy, let alone Zandalee or Deadfall. It doesn’t deserve the low ratings it has.

What’s more, instead of a new stylistic shift, it turns out to be yet another example of Cage doing good work as a screen nice guy, not only one of the three thieves who try to rob a bank in Paradise, Pennsylvania, but also a romantic lead in a subtle romance with M├Ądchen Amick.

He’s wondering if he’s a nice guy as the film begins, because someone drops a wallet in the busy New York Christmas rush and it’s kicked around until it ends up in his hands. He thinks obviously about doing the right thing instead of just taking the money. After all, the owner’s photos show that he has kids, so it’s probably cash for gifts. He tells a priest that he sent it back, but he lies to that priest about how long it’s been since his last confession, so we can choose whether to believe him or not.

What we can be sure of is that he’s Bill Firpo and he manages a restaurant in New York. Oh, and he has a pair of brothers, Dave and Alvin, who are being paroled early because the jails are overcrowded. And, get this, they’re played by Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey, which does not instil confidence. I like both of them and they have a lot of talent, but I didn’t expect them to co-star in a comedy as Cage’s brothers. One of these things is not like the others, right?

Well, that’s exactly how it’s set up. Lovitz is quite fun as Dave Firpo, talkative and unable, apparently congenitally, to ever tell the truth about anything. Carvey is far less fun as Alvin Firpo, kleptomaniac, not least because he puts on a stupid accent when Cage doesn’t. He does much better with a stupid accent but it’s still a stupid accent and it’s annoying.

They’re released into his custody and terms dictate that they can’t leave state, so naturally they immediately want him to drive them to Pennsylvania, to partake in a quest of sorts on behalf of one of their fellow inmates, who has not seen his daughter in years. He won’t do it, and they know he won’t do it, so they have a scheme already in motion to narrow down his options and persuade him into it.

So, of course, they end up in Paradise, which is a sleepy small town where everyone is nice to the degree that we almost wonder whether we’re in the Twilight Zone. Ditch the humour and we might as well be, because the film does acquire a heart and it’s that sort of heart.

What else they discover in Paradise is that the bank’s security is almost non-existent, not that Dave and Alvin were expecting anything different. The security guard is old and asleep. The camera isn’t plugged in. The place is ripe for the picking. Oh hey, and an armoured car promptly arrives to put $275,000 into the vault that beckons to the Firpos.

This is a stupid comedy, make no mistake, a stupid comedy with a plot that won’t surprise you at all. However, there are clever bits here too and I laughed aloud more than once when I wasn’t remotely expecting to. What’s more, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons that I had no expectation of making, to Red Rock West, a much better and more serious film, but with a common device in the inability of the lead to actually leave the central location.

In Red Rock West, Cage is unwittingly caught up in a film noir and every time he tries to get out of Red Rock and the mess there in which he’s found himself, circumstances conspire to bring him right back in again. In Trapped in Paradise, exactly the same thing happens, just with film noir changed to caper comedy and Red Rock changed to Paradise. In many ways, this is Red Rock West but with idiots and a light hearted Twilight Zone message.

It’s also a far more transparent film because George Gallo telegraphs everything and so we tend to know what’s going to happen in the next scene before any of the characters do. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that Bill Firpo kept the keys to the bank vault after they rob it. Why? To him, there’s no good reason. To us, it tells us exactly where the plot’s going to go. That’s not great writing unless Gallo wants us to stay ahead of the game.

Fortunately Cage is on best behaviour here, leaving all the shenanigans to his two screen brothers, and he seems surprisingly happy as their straight guy. Maybe he enjoyed the way that Gallo brings subtle surreality into the mix as a way to tighten the net around the Firpos without anyone deliberately doing anything.

For instance, their first attempt to drive out of town, the proceeds of their heist stuffed in a bag, fails miserably because there’s a blizzard raging and they drive off the road. They find themselves rescued by someone so nice that he leads them in Christmas carols as he drives them back into town, where he drops them at the bank manager’s house. And Clifford, in an understated performance by Donald Moffat, is so nice that he gives them gifts from under his own tree, so they have something dry to wear, and sets extra places at the Christmas table. It all wears on Bill Firpo’s conscience a treat.

Cage doesn’t provide much of the humour. That’s left most obviously to Lovitz and Carvey but, to my taste, most of the funniest scenes in the film are delivered by their screen mother, Ma Firpo. She’s played by Florence Stanley, an old hand perhaps best known as Abe Vigoda’s long suffering wife Bernice on Barney Miller. It has to be said that she delivers a different sort of humour to Lovitz and Carvey and I like it a heck of a lot more.

The funniest line isn’t hers though. Clifford and his family have a three legged dog they’ve rescued, appropriately named Tripod, and one scene features him leaving the house last after a raid, with one FBI agent looking at another and saying, “We didn’t do that, did we?”

Everything works out well, because it has to in Christmas movies and we never doubted it for a second. The various plot strands are tied together neatly in unsurprising fashion and it must be time to crack open the eggnog and see what’s in those presents under the tree.

I liked this a lot more than I expected to and I liked Cage in it a lot more than I expected to. However, it is the epitome of fluff and it’s not a film that’s likely to stick long in the mind.

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