The Fabulous Baker Boys endures as a film, if only for the iconic image of Michelle Pfeiffer writhing atop Jeff Bridges' piano in a sultry red dress as she struts through a famously libidinous version of "Makin' Whoopee." When the film was released in 1989, much of its buzz centered on Pfeiffer's brow-raising turn as a hooker-turned-songbird, and the novelty of real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges playing a piano-playing family act who long ago resigned themselves to a low-rent show-business career that's all business, no show. Without those two attention-grabbing hooks, Steve Kloves' low-key character study probably would have been unfairly overlooked. American studios turned out plot-light, atmosphere-heavy observational gems like this throughout the '70s, but when Baker Boys hit screens in the late '80s, its understated, world-weary sophistication stood out like a Cole Porter ballad sandwiched between generic Top 40 R&B hits.
In a rare big-screen turn, TV-movie fixture Beau plays an uptight middle-manager lounge musician who's too wrapped up in being a good, responsible older brother to notice the misery and despair simmering in his more gifted sibling, Jeff. Pfeiffer's arrival as the brothers' new singer and Jeff's temporary lover injects new life into their act, but also highlights the go-nowhere emptiness of Jeff's squandered life and career, and the tension underlying the brothers' relationship.
Pfeiffer plays a tough, sharp-tongued survivor pragmatic enough to realize that prostitution is just another form of show business, and show business is just another form of prostitution. With humor that cuts through a deep undercurrent of sadness, Baker Boys captures the rinky-dink milieu of second-rate lounges, where patron kibitzing threatens to drown out the piano-tinkling of the paid entertainment. Ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus lends the film a boozy, smoky glamour, but after Pfeiffer leaves the act and Jeff begins to bottom out, the film starts to meander. Though it lacks momentum as it ambles to a close, Baker Boys is nevertheless a touching, sly, resonant look at the joy and pain of collaboration, and the way jaded souls cut themselves off from their emotions to keep heartache at bay, but ultimately end up hurting each other all the same.
Key features: None.