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'It Could Happen to You'

By John F. Kelly
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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The original title of "It Could Happen to You" was "Cop Tips Waitress $2M," which is the kind of title that sums things up pretty nicely. But this is the kind of agreeable romantic comedy that you can sum up in a few tabloid headlines, which is what director Andrew Bergman ("Honeymoon in Vegas," "The Freshman") occasionally does.

Nicolas Cage is Charlie Lang, a good cop walking a beat in Manhattan -- an extremely good cop. He delivers babies, apprehends bad guys and plays stickball with the neighborhood kids. Rosie Perez is his wife, Muriel, a shrewish social climber who can't believe Charlie doesn't want anything more out of life than a walk-up apartment in Queens and an evening foot bath.

Bridget Fonda is Yvonne, a down-on-her-luck waitress every bit as nice as Charlie. On the worst day of her life -- a judge declares her bankrupt, she doesn't have enough money to divorce her no-good actor husband, her umbrella is turned inside out by windblown rain -- Charlie and partner Bo (Wendell Pierce) come into her diner, then leave before eating lunch. Short of cash but not wanting to stiff her on the tip, good-guy Charlie makes Yvonne an offer: She can have half the proceeds of his lottery ticket if he wins; if he doesn't he'll come back the next day and leave a tip.

Of course, he does win, to the tune of $4 million. After the numbers are announced on TV, as greedy Muriel dances around the apartment, Charlie breaks the bad news: "I've got something to tell you," he says.

"Aaaahhhhhh!" Muriel responds.

Keeping true to his word, Charlie returns to the diner. Soon the cop and the waitress are the darlings of New York, as a furious Muriel fumes.

It's important in movies like this, as the characters you're rooting for move toward -- let's face it -- adultery, that the other spouses be demonized as much as possible. Yvonne's vulture of a husband (Stanley Tucci) swoops down when he smells money. Muriel is so evil she steals from blind beggars, so vain she uses her prize money to commission a portrait of herself.

Muriel is so bad, in fact, and Charlie is so good, that you can't believe they would ever share a taxi, let alone a bed. Even though Charlie notices the differences between him and his wife -- "It's like we're two different channels," he says to Yvonne by way of explanation, "I'm CNN and she's the Home Shopping Network" -- it takes him a while to notice what everybody in the audience is already thinking: Dump Muriel and shack up with Yvonne.

That's where things get sort of complicated and the tabloid headlines pop up to telegraph the plot.

Cage has a fundamental decency in whatever role he's playing, even when it's a lawbreaker, as in "Raising Arizona" and "Wild at Heart." In "It Could Happen to You" he's able to deliver lines that might sound like bromides -- "A promise is a promise" and "I gave my word" -- without sounding like too much of a sap. Perez seems to be having fun playing the harridan, though she adopts a nasal twang so annoying -- imagine a cross between Herve Villechaize and Gilda Radner as Rosanne Rosannadanna -- you might be tempted to stuff popcorn in your ears. As the waitress, Fonda is a bit wispy, but she hasn't got much to do other than, well, be nice.

In the film's opening minutes, Isaac Hayes, who serves as a kind of narrator/chorus to the proceedings, says that pretty much everything in the movie is true. But buried in the credits is a note that says the real cop -- one Detective Robert Cunningham (Ret.) -- and the real waitress have been happily married to their respective spouses for more than 30 years each. Guess that wouldn't have made a very interesting movie.

In the end, "It Could Happen to You" is a lot like the cop and the waitress: sweet, naive, not too smart, but likable. In this pyrotechnic summer of "Speed," "Blown Away" and "True Lies," that's got to count for something.

IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU (PG) -- Pretty tame stuff, with no violence, sex or egregious profanity, though there is some gunplay while Cage is on his beat.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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