Directed By: Steve Kloves
Written By: Steve Kloves
Produced By: Paula Weinstein, Mark Rosenberg
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ellie Raab
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 114 minutes
Review Date: November 19, 2010
Every night, Jack (Jeff Bridges) and Frank (Beau Bridges) Baker sit atop a dilapidated stage adorned with schmaltzy lights. They are pianists, who for years have been frequenting the same seedy clubs and playing the same melodic tunes. Frank brings the charisma, providing the wallflower audience with minimal back story and tired jokes. Jack, on the other hand, sits quietly smoking his 100th cigarette of the day, craning his neck to reduce the strain of his monotonous life. He doesn’t mention this at first, but it’s quite obvious his life on the D-list is no longer satisfying. When the gigs aren’t as prevalent, the brothers realize they need to spice up their dual-piano act to reestablish their withering worth. Enter the chanteuse.
These first simple, delicate minutes play out beautifully, simply observing from a distance the bottom of an act that grew stale long ago. When juxtaposed to the glimmering lights of the city, their saddened faces look only more sincere. This is a swift and convincing intro, handled deftly by first-time director Steve Kloves.
While holding auditions for a female lead, Susie Diamond (a poignant Michelle Pfeiffer) stumbles in an hour late as the brothers are wrapping. Per usual, Jack sits silently puffing away as Frank politely tells her to buzz off. She brushes away his command, keenly noting that they could use a little help (the rehearsal hall they rented is in shambles). Both brothers shrug, sigh, and let her at it. Her performance raises their eyebrows with a powerful, yet restrained tune. It’s enticingly perfect, a blend of sultry harmony with a practiced melody. It’s the ropes without the strings. It’s exactly what these brothers need, and they make no apprehension about it.
Pfeiffer is absolutely fantastic as Susie. In what should have been an iconic role hindered by poor box office performance, she knocks the “Sexy Jazz Singer” motif out of the park. One scene, in particular, is a knockout. Laying atop Jack’s piano, she sings a version of “Making Whoopee” that would make Jessica Rabbit blush. It’s no surprise then that her undeniable sexuality gets the best of both Jack and Frank.
Frank, generally the manager of the band, begins to lose his grip the closer Jack and Susie become. Their relationship is inevitable from the start: two people who are broken, alone, and repress their qualms with the outside world. In a pivotal scene where Jack is denied a date by Susie, his indifference catches her off guard. In another scene much later in the film, Jack’s indifference makes an even greater impact on her, eventually splitting up the group. What lends Jack’s character considerable depth, however, is the look of intense sadness and desperation behind his eyes that was missing from the earlier scene. He has reached the end of his rope, and he cannot live this kind of life any longer.
Jack must reconcile with his brother, too, because he got caught amongst the fray. The rapport between Jack and Frank, whether hostile or loving, is sincere and razor sharp. They invoke the bond that only true brothers can have (as they are), and it really works in selling their drama. When Frank tells Jack that he came in early on a particular piece, Jack rebuts, “You came in late. You’ve been coming in late for years.” Both brothers know it’s the end, but neither can come to admit it.
The Fabulous Baker Boys is a complex film hidden beneath a simple façade. It tells a story that most of us can relate to in some manner: The delicate nature of a man who has a vision of greatness clouded by the smoke of his subterranean lifestyle. This film is a hidden gem.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.