Laughter Soars in 'The Birdcage'

Once upon a time, moviegoers thought of France as the home of cosmopolitan art cinema, and Hollywood as the world's chief producer of snappy entertainments.

Things are no longer so simple. France has mastered Hollywood formulas, creating pictures so American in style and substance that Hollywood sometimes buys up the rights and remakes them.

That's how ''La Femme Nikita'' and ''Three Men and a Cradle'' became ''Point of No Return'' and ''Three Men and a Baby,'' hardly distinguishable from their European prototypes apart from their American stars and English- language dialogue.

''The Birdcage,'' starring Robin Williams and Gene Hackman, is the latest case in point. Telling the wacky tale of a gay man and a conservative senator brought together by a family event, it's based on the French-Italian comedy ''La Cage aux Folles,'' which conquered box offices in 1978 by energetically combining the sophistication of French farce with the flamboyance of Hollywood comedy. It spawned two sequels and a Broadway musical, and it was inevitable that a full-fledged American remake would follow.

The new picture is as spunky and frenetic as the international hit that inspired it. With its famous cast and respected behind-the-scenes talent, it marks another step in the mainstreaming of gay-related subjects, although most of the picture is so frivolous that it's hard to take very seriously as either cinema or sociology.

Williams plays Armand Goldman, a gay nightclub proprietor who has raised his son Val with help from Albert, his longtime companion (played by Nathan Lane). Val visits them to announce his wedding plans and arrange for the prospective in-laws to meet.

But there's a catch: His fiancee's father is a conservative senator with no sympathy for homosexuals in or out of the military. Complicating matters more, the senator's political future has been threatened by a recent scandal, and he's eager for his daughter to have an old-fashioned ''family values'' wedding with plenty of vote-getting photo ops. Armand and Albert are not exactly what he had in mind, so Val asks them to pose as ''regular guys'' long enough to fool the senator and his strait-laced wife.

Hollywood has become a little bolder about political issues lately - pictures as different as ''The American President'' and ''Dead Man Walking'' break the usual rule of avoiding controversy at all costs - and ''The Birdcage'' joins this group with amusing jabs at a senator so far to the right that even an acceptable clergyman for his daughter's wedding is hard to find. (The Pope? ''Too controversial.'' Billy Graham? ''Too liberal.'')

Balancing this are jokes aimed at the gay community, as when Albert finds himself unable to ''look straight'' for more than a fleeting moment.

It's not surprising to find touches like these in a movie directed by Mike Nichols and written by Elaine May, who launched their careers in the late 1950s as one of that era's most culturally sophisticated comedy teams.

But this doesn't mean ''The Birdcage'' is particularly thought-provoking. Most of it is closer in tone to a TV sitcom episode than an incisive social satire, and both the filmmaking and acting go for unadulterated laughs rather than revealing nuances.

Williams gives his most controlled screen performance to date, and Hackman is his usual expert self in the less extravagant Senator Keeley role. Lending strong support are Dianne Wiest as the senator's calculating wife, Dan Futterman and Calista Flockhart as the engaged couple, and Hank Azaria as the klutziest servant in Miami.

In all, the movie is no more memorable than the song-and-dance numbers Armand stages in his nightclub. But it's quick and colorful and will probably be one of the season's more popular pictures.

* ''The Birdcage'' has an R rating. It contains much material about homosexuality as well as nudity and vulgar language.

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