If you’re an avid enough follower of inside-entertainment news to be reading this magazine, you probably know that the new Nicolas Cage-Bridget Fonda romantic comedy, It Could Happen to You, was originally called Cop Gives Waitress Two Million Dollar Tip. The decision to change the title may go down as one of the bigger blunders of the movie season — for, as almost anyone would agree, the original title was far catchier. Why? Partly because it has the zesty ring of a tabloid-newspaper headline (which, in the movie, it is). What the original title really sounds like, though, in all its deli-counter bluntness, is one of those killer phrases that screenwriters throw around at pitch meetings. It’s a concept title, a recipe for a hit. It Could Happen to You turns out to be a sweet little fable of emotional rescue — Cage and Fonda exchange melting glances throughout the movie — yet the film never develops very far beyond the wafer-thin simplicity of its cop-gives-waitress premise. How could it? Set in a fairy-tale New York City, it’s about the romance of two saints.
Charlie Lang (Cage) is a policeman out of a storybook. Every day he walks the beat in Manhattan in his sparkling blue uniform, chasing petty criminals and helping blind folks cross the street. Yvonne Biasi (Fonda) is a coffee-shop waitress who’s just declared bankruptcy. One day, Charlie wanders into Yvonne’s restaurant and makes a dim attempt to banter with her. She’s having a bad morning, but he sees something in her — a serenity, an instinctive kindness. When he discovers that he doesn’t have enough for a tip, he shows her the New York State Lotto ticket he has just purchased, promising to split the pot if they win. They do win ($4 million), Charlie is true to his word, and, thanks to the New York Post, the story of the cop who shared his lottery prize with a waitress becomes a media sensation.
There’s just one catch: Charlie had purchased the ticket for his wife, Muriel (Rosie Perez), a gold-digging shrew who devotes most of her time to reminding him how miserable they are. (It’s part of Charlie’s charm that he doesn’t realize it.) Yvonne has relationship troubles herself — a rat of an estranged husband (Stanley Tucci) who tries to horn his way in on her good fortune. To resolve the mess, Charlie and Yvonne will have to figure out that they’re in love.
Is there another contemporary actor with the gentleness, the yearning ardor, of Nicolas Cage? With his lost-puppy eyes and slightly gawky grin, he’s like a poster boy for true romance. Cage flirts adorably with Fonda, who gets to exploit her best feature, the razor-sharp smile that cuts surprisingly far back into her pale, anxious face. Fonda’s smile is always a sexy surprise: She looks like she wants to kiss you and bite you at the same time. As winning as these two are, though, their aw-shucks chemistry isn’t supported by enough of a plot. It Could Happen to You is pleasant, but the two main characters are so completely and utterly nice that it’s hard to get excited about them.
Working from a script by Jane Anderson, director Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas) has jettisoned his usual rib-nudging zaniness. The film’s one true comic mechanism is Rosie Perez, whose presence, I confess, I have come to dread. With her squeaky Latina bitchiness (the homegirl as Mouseketeer), she’s become the Jose Jimenez of the ’90s. Using her lottery winnings to shop for furs and generally berate her husband even more than she did before they won the jackpot, Perez’s Muriel is so grating that she throws the entire movie out of whack. We never understand how Charlie made it past the first date with her, and why he doesn’t simply ditch her now.
There’s a self-congratulatory yuppie undercurrent to It Could Happen to You. Charlie and Yvonne fall for each other because they’re twin good samaritans. She makes a point of helping customers who are homeless or have AIDS. He, of course, was true to his word about the lottery money. In the film’s centerpiece sequence, scored to Frank Sinatra’s lilting ”Young at Heart,” they rent out Yankee Stadium so that the kids in Charlie’s neighborhood can have a dream baseball game. The film sets up a dichotomy between its picture-perfect romantic heroes and their two awful mates. But if this self-consciously old-fashioned date movie had been made decades ago, I suspect it would have mixed up our responses a bit. Charlie and Yvonne might have been portrayed with some wisecracking bite (and maybe a few flaws); and the Perez and Tucci characters would, perhaps, have been made eccentrically likable despite their selfishness. As it is, It Could Happen to You is a syrupy-sweet package undiluted by wit, tartness, observation. It would be easier to enjoy the stars in Charlie and Yvonne’s eyes if the movie didn’t keep patting them on the back. B-