IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU *** 1/2. Directed by Andrew Bergman. Written by Jane Anderson. Photography, Caleb Deschanel. Editing, Barry Malkin. Production design, Bill Groom. Music, Carter Burwell. Produced by Mike Lobell. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez, Wendell Pierce, Isaac Hayes, Seymour Cassel, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Red Buttons. A Tristar release. 101 min. Rated PG.
"We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films," was the doctoral dissertation (U. of Wisconsin, 1970) of Andrew Bergman, a native of Queens (where much of "It Could Happen to You" takes place). The thesis became immediately a widely-read book, and Bergman rapidly became a successful screenwriter ("Blazing Saddles," "Fletch," 'The In-Laws," "Soap Dish,") and writer-director ("So Fine," "The Freshman," "Honeymoon in Vegas.")
"We're in the Money" could serve as a subtitle for all the movies that Bergman has directed. It certainly fits perfectly "It Could Happen to You," whose original and better title, "Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip" came from the tabloid headlines about a true event.
The release title comes from a Sinatra song: "Fairy tales can come true .... it can happen to you." The fairy tale side is in the "Once Upon a Time" introduction by recurring one-man chorus Angel (Isaac Hayes) who keeps mentioning "fairy tale." And the fairy tale people who are in the money are Queens policeman Charlie Lang (Nicolas Cage), waitress Yvonne Biasi (Bridget Fonda) and Charlie's wife Muriel (Rosie Perez).
Charlie loves his work, is a too-good-to-be-true cop, a mix of local hero, adult boy-scout and semi-saint. Cage, one of our best actors, plays him with appealing sweetness and vagueness, and a certain dimness that sometimes comes close to making him a distant relative of Forrest Gump.
Yvonne is charming, sad, and bankrupted by her estranged husband. Meeting her at her cafe and realizing he has no money left for a tip, Charlie promises her that if his lottery ticket wins, he'll split 50-50 with her.
Hairdresser Muriel is a termagant played by a Rosie Perez who plays Rosie Perez. Ambitious, dissatisfied, non-stop screeching, screaming and bitching, and a prime candidate for uxoricide, she makes Mexican Spitfire Lupe Velez ( remember her?) look like Greer Garson. She spits out with machine-gun speed her nasal Daffy Duck tones, but with an nearly impenetrable Brooklyn-Latino accent.
The ticket wins, of course, and Charlie does the right thing by the disbelieving Yvonne. "A promise is a promise." But Muriel will have none of it, and thereby hang vast and amusing complications. A woman removes sheets from a rooftop clothesline, and the New York skyline is revealed. The judge before whom debtor Yvonne appears has a coughing fit. Yvonne obligingly pours him some water, and by waitressy force of habit inquires: "Will there be something else?"
Later, repeating this to a greasy spoon colleague, disheartened Yvonne adds: "There will never be anything else for me." It is delicious early details like these that won me over.
The nice bits-of-business continue as Charlie presents Yvonne with a neck-chain for her ever-slipping eyeglasses, and, after this, with two million dollars. Cage's simplicity and Fonda's delighted bewilderment and hesitations are lovingly acted and directed. They involve but do not overtly manipulate us. (Fonda, getting better all the time, is also getting better parts).
We are partly in Frank Capra territory, but without Capra's immigrant enthusiasm about America and his refusal to see its flip side. "It Could..." touches upon modern ills, but having done this, switches back to the positive, in the shape of Yvonne and Charlie whose romance is both predestined and predictable.
The first 75 minutes are pleasurable, funny, original and paced briskly, often in the old screwball comedy style. Then come romantically soupy interludes as the pair go to a fancy restaurant, rollerblade in Central Park, gives tokens to subway riders, takes Queens kids to play baseball.
These cute but mercifully brief stretches, plus the monotony of Muriel's fits, started me thinking that this might turn into a Titanic movie, one where the journey starts superbly but ends with an abrupt sinking.
Happily, the film resumes its buoyancy with diverting twists, good acting, funny touches. One inspired scene has Muriel, who has taken her husband to court, adjusting the breasts she "had done" with her new fortune, while claiming visions of her defunct father.
She will eventually marry tacky lottery millionaire Jack Gross. Aptly, this will make her Mrs. Gross. She will also get her comeuppance, while, thanks to Positively True Big-heartedness of Americans, Yvonne and Charlie will live in happy comfort ever after.