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Hank Azaria steals The Birdcage, one broad pratfall at a time

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Because it’s Simpsons Week at The A.V. Club, we’re recommending films featuring key contributors to the series, from actors to writers to a certain famed composer.


The Birdcage (1996)

Despite its quartet of stars, The Birdcage is ultimately stolen out from under Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest by co-star Hank Azaria, whose gift for voices—a prodigious talent put to work for decades on The Simpsons—is on hilarious display in the 1996 farce. Azaria plays Agador, the effeminate Guatemalan maid of South Beach drag club owner Armand Goldman (Williams) and his actor husband Albert (Lane). Exhibiting a thick accent and more hip-shaking mannerisms than one body should be capable of managing, he’s an outrageous sidekick of the highest order, and the most consistently funny player in a film filled with them. Among the actor’s more inspired bits of shtick are a scene of Agador singing along to Gloria Estefan in jean shorts, a bra, and one of Albert’s wigs, as well as a later attempt to stay upright while wearing shoes, as part of an elaborate ruse to play straight for the conservative politician parents (Hackman and Wiest) of their son’s fiancée.

Nineteen years after its debut, Mike Nichols’ modernized adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles strikes a somewhat awkward chord with the character of son Val (Dan Futterman), whose demand that Armand and Albert deny and repress their homosexuality makes him come off as a selfish, insensitive brat—and one who, ultimately, only embraces his parents’ true nature because he’s been left with no more deceitful options. Similar discomfort comes via Armand’s repeated attempts to hide the flamboyant Albert from view (note to future spouses: do not treat the love of your life like an embarrassment). Yet whereas those plot points now stick out like sore thumbs, Elaine May’s script otherwise remains amazingly sharp, generating consistent laughs from a bevy of clever one-liners and ever-more-awkward situations, all of which Nichols directs with his usual un-showy sharpness. Ultimately, though, The Birdcage remains a riot thanks mostly to its cast, from the stuffy Hackman and Wiest, to the exasperated Williams and showy Lane, to the colorful Azaria, playing a man whose absurd vivacity cannot be contained.

Availability: The Birdcage is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase digitally through the major digital services. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix.

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