Wednesday 4 February 2015

Movie Review: The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

An old fashioned character study that revives the slow-burn spirit of the 1970s with a glossy 1980s radiance, The Fabulous Baker Boys is a thoughtful exploration of the dynamics between three complex performers weighed down by life's expectations.

In Seattle, siblings and pianists Frank and Jack Baker (Beau and Jeff Bridges) make their living with a stale lounge act. Frank is older, married, and the designated worrier and administrator. Jack is single, more effortlessly talented, but also bored and lacking in motivation to do anything about it. With bookings down and prospects dim, the brothers decide to add a singer to spice up their act. After auditioning a large number of women, they stumble on former escort Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), a stunningly beautiful singer with a husky voice and cutting attitude.

With her stage presence and sultry singing, Susie makes an immediate impact, and the trio achieve quick success. Despite Frank's warnings not to ruin a good thing, Jack is unable to resist wooing Susie, and the two gradually slip into an affair that alters the dynamics of the act and threatens their burgeoning fame.

The Fabulous Baker Boys revives the glory of lounges that have seen better days, where smoke and alcohol mix to obscure the dimming light of optimism. Directed and written by Steve Kloves, the film moves slowly but deliberately to define three intriguing characters and circle their lives as expectations clash with lust for something bigger, better and more passionate. While the patient build-up of emotions serves the cause of enriched quality, the film's pacing in the second half does occasionally slip into ponderous mode.

The Bakers have been performing at dives for too long, Frank content enough to make a living for his family, Jack brooding about how unfair life is but never finding the fire to fight back. Susie upsets the rhythm of the boys, first by sparking the show then igniting Jack's heart. She injects new spirit, and it cuts both ways, promising a level of success the Bakers have always longed for but never attained, and threatening the destruction of the long-standing bond between the brothers.

Michelle Pfeiffer has probably never had a better role, and she makes the most of it. It's impossible to look at anything else on the screen when Susie is performing, and Pfeiffer does all her own singing. Her limited but willing range is perfectly suited to an escort taking a shot at another career, and Pfeiffer creates and maintains Susie's memorable aura of scrappy aloofness.

Brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges display the natural chemistry and tension that comes with the sibling package. This is one of Beau's larger roles and he defines Frank as more of a businessman and family man than piano man. Jeff overplays the mopiness of Jack, staying in the shell of angry cool for too long before allowing his intensity to start crackling.

The film breathes deeply from the clingy air of desperation that proclaims incongruity between this trio and true success. Kloves genuinely cares about Frank, Jack and Susie, and the movie's strength resides in allowing the characters to grow into fully-rounded and fabulously flawed people on the screen. The rich human drama is punctuated by jazzy performance numbers, The Fabulous Baker Boys flirting with becoming a musical.

And when Susie delivers Makin' Whoopee in a slinky red dress on top of Jack's piano, the world simply stops rotating for two minutes and thirty seconds, pausing out of respect for one of those magical cinematic moments that comes along once a decade or so. The boys claim to be fabulous; the lady actually is.

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