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'It Could Happen to You'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1994


Andrew Bergman
Wendell Pierce;
Stanley Tucci;
Rosie Perez;
Bridget Fonda;
Isaac Hayes;
Nicolas Cage
Parental guidance suggested

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"It Could Happen to You" couldn't. Not for as long as you live, not ever, and that's the almighty glory of the thing. This daydreamy comic fable presents the world not as it is but as we wish it could be -- a place where good things happen to decent people and there is such a thing as Christmas in July. Simply and without pandering or insults to your intelligence, the movie delivers more of the old-style pleasures of moviegoing than any other picture in a long while.

Andrew Bergman's once-upon-a-time tale has a premise right out of Capra but with less of the corn. The hero is a New York City cop named Charlie (Nicolas Cage), a sweet-natured regular Joe who is -- as Angel (Isaac Hayes), the film's dulcet-voiced narrator, tells us -- "a good listener, loves kids, has common sense and patience."

While on a lunch break one day with his partner, Bo (the marvelous Wendell Pierce), Charlie comes up short on the tip for his cup of coffee. Having just purchased a ticket for the state lottery, he makes a promise to his waitress, Yvonne (Bridget Fonda), that if he wins he'll return to split the prize with her. This being New York and all, Yvonne assumes that this guy is just jerking her around, but she doesn't know Charlie.

At first you might think that Cage, the prince of movie nuts, would be wasted playing this straight arrow. But as Cage plays him, Charlie is the ultimate eccentric simply because he is honest and good. With a more conventional leading man, the character might be insufferable.

After he wins, Charlie does his best to think of ways to stiff Yvonne -- primarily at the desperate urging of his greedy wife, Muriel (Rosie Perez), who is not happy with her husband's generosity -- but it's just not in him. He becomes a media hero for leaving Yvonne a $2 million tip, but he can't see what all the fuss is about. "I made a promise and kept it," he says. "Most people would've done the same."

Actually, the only other person who might have reacted as he did is Yvonne. An aspiring actress who came to the big city to make her way, Yvonne is the sort of slightly daffy, pure soul who celebrates hitting the jackpot by splurging on a jar of macadamia nuts. Selfless and hard-working, she's an easy mark for life's less fortunate, but despite her kind heart, she's a sort of lightning rod for bum luck. Earlier in the very day Charlie first walks into her diner, she went bankrupt because of an astronomical credit card bill run up by her estranged husband, Eddie (Stanley Tucci). "When I first came here, I had all this faith," she tells the judge in bankruptcy court. When Charlie informs her that she's a millionaire, she seems more relieved than happy. At long last, she's caught a break.

Bergman's challenge here is to keep the champagne spirit of the picture alive without having it turn sticky or going flat. Charlie, of course, is married, but Muriel is fed up with her husband's lack of ambition, and gradually they've grown apart. As Charlie puts it, "I'm CNN and she's the Home Shopping Network." Almost from the start, we long for this basset-eyed cop to dump her and hook up with Yvonne.

Working from a nicely turned script by Jane Anderson, Bergman ("The Freshman," "Honeymoon in Vegas") keeps the momentum up by throwing obstacles in the way of the romance. Naturally an affair is out of the question, and so they find other recreations, like renting out Yankee Stadium for the kids in Charlie's Queens neighborhood. These scenes are sprightly and intoxicating, and Bergman builds the romantic tension until it becomes almost excruciating.

The first two-thirds of this delicious fairy-book romance is nearly perfect, so much so that it's only a minor irritation when the picture stumbles in the third act. Bergman's moves in this last section are clumsy and strained. They're all too much what we're used to seeing at the movies. The true charm of "It Could Happen to You" is that it offers such a blessed relief from the norm. In terms of moviegoing, it truly is Christmas in July.

It Could Happen to You is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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