Cage Match

“This movie was cute!” said your mom.

It Could Happen to You
31

It Could Happen to You

Release year: 1994 Posted April 5, 2014

“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”

H.W. Longfellow, Kavanagh: A Tale

In It Could Happen to You, the gentlest of New Yorks serves as the backdrop for a love triangle involving Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez, and our consummate hero. Nicolas Cage is the prince this modern-day fairy tale deserves.

When Cage’s character doesn’t have the money to tip a waitress, he promises her that he’ll pay her back tomorrow—and that if he wins the lottery with the ticket he bought earlier that day, he’ll split the winnings with her. He wins, and honors his promise, which leads to problems with his marriage among other plot points.

This movie, and the performances (with one exception), are believable and enjoyable. Bridget Fonda, most notable for the masterpiece Jackie Brown, is grounded and believable. She makes down-on-your-luck seem neither bitchy nor cloying. Rosie Perez, eternally underutilized, is great as well. But Nic is far and away the best of the three.

There is no screaming, and no exaggerated romantic overtures. It’s the perfect counterargument to people who say Cage only ever does in-your-face action. Here, he’s just an honest cop in a world where all the other cops are honest too. In this fictionalized and forgiving New York he’s dopey and genuine and eternally hopeful. As discussed in the review for The Weather Man, Cage can be extremely likable to begin with, but his likability skyrockets when you cast him in the role of a kind, generous millionaire. Comparing all of that against Rosie Perez, Cage almost seems like Jesus.

Commendably, Cage avoids falling back on his mopey routine when bad things happen to his character. He just taps into the regular, decent guy at his core, and delivers. As a viewer, it’s rewarding, but as an actor I’m not sure. Maybe he felt the way a Juilliard-trained actor might feel on a sitcom, or in a touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. There’s no challenge or inner struggle. What you see is what you get. Everybody gets what they deserve in the end.

It Could Happen to You came out in 1994, and it may help to explain the turn towards insanity that his career took later. Tired of being the leading man in romantic comedies, and too old to do his “Elvis” character anymore, he decides to go for broke, twisting acting on its head and being intentionally bombastic. He just takes the roles he’s offered (something an actor his little control over), and makes them enjoyable. Profitable. Would Face/Off have been any good if he had played his role seriously, in defiance of the film’s story? Should he have held out for better roles? Maybe. Would they have come? Who knows. As an actor you work with what you’re offered, and Cage does.

As for the exception I mentioned earlier: it comes in the form of an overused and inexcusable plot device called the “magical Negro.” In It Could Happen To You, this role falls to Isaac Hayes. He turns out to be a reporter for the New York Post, who shows up at the end with a hidden camera to document and report the selfless generosity of the white protagonists, resulting in an outburst of popular support that helps them solve their big problem in the movie. It’s pretty weird when you think about all the other possible ways to end a movie like this. Short of rewriting the end, the producers and the director, Andrew Bergman, could have at least cast the deus ex machina as literally any other race. At least he wasn’t the only black guy in the movie, thanks to Wendell Pierce (also vastly underutilized).

All in all, It Could Happen To You is a cute, sweet, gentle film. It’s mostly well written and has a huge heart. The performances are spot on, and besides the hackneyed and racially insensitive ending, it’s pretty enjoyable.

Movie?
Good*
Nic Cage’s acting?
Good
Did his performance make the movie worse?
*The ending was a serious problem, but no