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‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 13, 1989

"The Fabulous Baker Boys" is a grand piano movie, all sophisticated rhythms, visual glissandi and three-part harmony. It's tuxedo classy, at once smart and nostalgic, set in that bittersweet hour when the party's over, the champagne's been drunk, men have loosened their collars and women have brushed confetti from their bare shoulders. The Baker Boys, played by Jeff and Beau Bridges, are cocktail-lounge pianists, the kind who play "Feelings" to a smattering of applause. In this stunning, funny first outing together, the brothers dignify these human cliches, portraying Jack (Jeff) and Frank (Beau) as if they were an old boxer and his manager on the skids. The jewel in this setting is Susie Diamond, a chanteuse in the rough played by Michelle Pfeiffer, slinky and cynical, more Bacall than Bacall. Like the sun through a magnifying glass, she burns an image on the screen.

After auditioning off-key would-be singers to modernize the act, the disheartened brothers are stretching and yawning and calling it quits when in walks Susie, an hour and a half late and she couldn't care less. "Punctuality is the first rule of show business," says Frank, who reluctantly gives her a chance. She takes out her gum, saunters onto the stage and, just the way we knew she would, sings like a dream. But we didn't expect her husky, heartfelt version of "More Than You Know." The ballads, evocatively performed by Pfeiffer herself, seem to make up a third of the movie, a quasi-musical romance driven by the unfulfilled longing between the romantic leads, like feline foreplay as handled by Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges. Susie, forthright as any noir dame ever was, toys with Jack, a smug one-night stand waiting to happen. Formerly on-call for an escort service, she's got his number all right. He offers a cigarette, but she only smokes Paris Ovals at $3.50 a pack: "I never touch American cigarettes. If you're putting something in your mouth, it might as well be the best."

The flying sparks naturally set off the rivalry that Jack and Frank have repressed 250 nights a year for years. Even though he can't feel the music anymore -- he approaches it like a bureaucrat -- Frank is afraid of losing control of their lifelong duet. Beau Bridges, all pudgy and wounded, makes a subtle villain of the fussy, guilt-inflicting Frank. With his cheap suits and two-bit spirit, Frank was born to the piano bar. The lesser talent, he handles the bookings and finances for Jack, a sullen, empty man who has spent 31 guilty, fearful years hiding from his hopes behind his brother's coattails. It's a part that would suit Montgomery Clift, and Jeff Bridges, lean, sexy and contemptuous, is more than up to it in this, his best work to date.

After a set of old favorites at the Starfire Lounge, Frank goes home to his suburban family and Jack slips off to play in a smoke-filled jazz club or stays after closing to feel pure music come out of his hands. One night Susie, clutching a bubbly, surprises him there, and they make a little light music together.

When Frank has to attend to a family emergency, the two are left to have their way with the New Year's Eve show. They commit sacrilege, replace the soggy "Feelings" with a scorching rendition of "Makin' Whoopee." Susie slithers alluringly atop the piano, catching Jack's eye, crooning so suggestively that "a little shoes, a little rice" comes out R-rated.

Have you ever seen a Steinway blush?

The crowd swoons, the camera spins, the result is a scene to rival Dietrich's act in "The Blue Angel." Director of photography Michael Ballhaus, who similarly circled the Statue of Liberty in "Working Girl," obviously has a way with women. Pfeiffer, her ivory skin set off against the red of her gown and the ebony of the grand, is singularly beautiful. And so is this old-fashioned movie, written and directed by Steve Kloves, whose only other movie credit is the screenplay of the '40s-era "Racing With the Moon."

Kloves is a nostalgic young man whose passion for Ella Fitzgerald records, film noir and romantic melodrama mesh in this classic directorial debut. "The Fabulous Baker Boys" is like a beloved movie from the glory days of Hollywood. It transports you. It's an American rhapsody.

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