Thursday, November 8, 2018

Film Review: The Fabulous Baker Boys

The Fabulous Baker Boys, written and directed by Steve Kloves, is my favorite movie. The right word is "favorite," and not "best," or "greatest," or any other grandly hyperbolic adjective. While the movie has its fans, and it was favorably reviewed upon its release, it doesn't enjoy any significant critical or popular stature. One cannot really argue the film deserves renewed attention, either. It didn't break any new ground. It's pastiche. But The Fabulous Baker Boys is my favorite movie for a very simple reason. It embodies what I love in films more than any other picture.

The title characters are two brothers, Jack (Jeff Bridges) and Frank (Beau Bridges), who work as a freelance lounge piano duo in Seattle. Faced with a declining number of gigs, they decide to take on a singer. After a farcical series of auditions, they hire Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), the only applicant with talent. She's brusque and willful, and while she brings the act its greatest success, she also ends up tearing it apart. She and Jack have an affair, and it inflames the tensions that have developed between the brothers over the years. She brings Jack, the more talented musician of the two, face to face with his bitterness at playing beneath his ambitions. Frank's perennial aggravation over keeping Jack disciplined enough to maintain the act boils over. The Baker Boys finally break up, but it's obvious that Susie was only the catalyst. The brothers were in denial about things that had been percolating for quite some time. Kloves' story isn't melodrama. Everything flows from the characters, not a predetermined plot structure. While all the conflicts end up more or less resolved, there's no big climactic scene. The characters' relationships just find a new normal.

The film pushes so many personal buttons. The loosely constructed, character-driven approach to story has its appeal, and Jack's frustration at not having the opportunities his talent has equipped him for certainly has resonance. The music is my favorite kind: the jazz and jazz-inflected pop of the 1950s and '60s. (Jack's piano performances were dubbed by Dave Grusin, who appears to have modeled the style after that of jazz great Bill Evans.) Steve Kloves has a knack for the kind of cynical, quippy dialogue that was a highlight of '30s and '40s Hollywood, and he includes it throughout. (The grittier word choices aren't sidestepped, either.) He's also enamored with the dreamy moodiness of noir-style visuals, and the film is suffused with the glamorous melancholy of French films from the '50s and early '60s. Kloves has the chops to pull all of this off, and his nostalgic sensibilities are bound up in a very 1980s perspective on content and form: money, for better and for worse, is a defining life feature, and the sleeker the presentation, the better. For someone who grew up in the '80s, who sees that contemporary take on things as the norm, and who also adores those older styles, the synthesis this movie provides seems ideal. And to top things off, there are the performances Kloves gets from his three leads.

Jeff and Beau Bridges, brothers in real life, are ideally cast as Jack and Frank. It's no surprise they can evoke the pair's rapport, with all its affection and tensions, and make it look effortless. They make things between the two so vivid that one may wonder how much of the film is an allegory for their real-life relationship. Beyond that, Jeff Bridges does full justice to Jack's moody disaffection, and he makes the character's emotional remoteness romantic. Beau Bridges' major achievement is in making Frank's fussbudget tendencies comic, but never making him a clown. The performance is layered enough to make one respect Frank's anxieties even while laughing at him. The two actors are always entertaining together, and the characters' partial reconciliation near the end--an impromptu duet of "You're Sixteen"--is one of the film's highlights.

Michelle Pfeiffer is thrilling. In the years leading up to this film, she'd proven a versatile, rigorous craftsman, and had developed a direct, unfussy acting style that put no distance between her characters and the audience. As Susie Diamond, she broke through to a new level of assurance, and it's electrifying. The biting insolence of Susie's manner echoes the Lauren Bacall of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, but Pfeiffer's work is far richer. Her line readings have the crackling tautness of Bacall's best, but there's a level of nuance that gives a much fuller sense of the personality underneath. Pfeiffer also makes Susie a marvelously compelling singer. She knows how to style a song, and she makes the lyrics flush with emotion without ever seeming mushy. Her performances of "More Than You Know," "Ten Cents a Dance," and "My Funny Valentine" are all terrific, and she even manages to redeem "Feelings." The high point--and the film's signature set piece--is Susie's rendition of "Making Whoopee," which she sings atop Jack's piano while the two are performing in front of a New Year's Eve audience. Steve Kloves and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus give the scene a swooning visual quality--Susie's blazing red dress framed by the room's darkness as the camera slowly dollies around the piano. Pfeiffer's singing always flirts with the audience, and here that's extended to Jack in full view of the people watching. It's so brazen it's hilarious, and the happiness Pfeiffer shows also makes it romantic and sweet. This undeniably great scene is the finest moment of her career.

All the artisan work in the movie seems perfect: Michael Ballhaus' gorgeous cinematography; the elegant rhythms of William Steinkamp's editing; Dave Grusin's musical arrangements; the acting in supporting roles from Jennifer Tilly, Xander Berkeley, and the rest of the cast. Everything comes together, and every time I see the film I always find more to admire. Thinking it all over makes me want to see the picture again. What can I say? It's my favorite movie.