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The Fabulous Baker Boys
★★★★☆
First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema Screening room Tv laptop

Early in '89, Steven Soderbergh was lauded for writing and directing the wonderful sex, lies, and videotape—the industry-changing indie that seemed wise beyond its twenty-five-year-old author's years. A few months later in that same year another young writer/director, twenty-nine-year-old Steve Kloves, delivered a debut feature that seemed almost as insightful about the intricate neuroses of adult relationships but made within the context of a major studio genre picture. The Fabulous Baker Boys is a wonderful throwback to classic Hollywood melodramas of the ‘40s and ‘50s when movies stars really were STARS. It tells the well-worn tale of two longtime male collaborators whose relationship is threatened when they decide to bring in a female partner—inevitably leading to one of them falling in love with her, which opens up long-buried conflicts between the original team. But rather then coming off like a frustrating barrage of bad clichés, Kloves’ movie feels like coming home and slipping into your warm, comfortable, familiar bed after months of being on the road.

Jeff and Beau Bridges star as two brothers who make their living as a piano duo playing standards in cocktail lounges. Their act is getting so stale they decide to bring on a female vocalist to shake things up a bit. The Baker Boys get their wish when they cross paths with a gorgeous but cynical singer with an untrained but highly original style. The addition of Susie Diamond, played by the magnificent Michelle Pfeiffer, enables their act to live up to its moniker.

The relationship between the two brothers feels intriguingly authentic, even though Jeff Bridges’ jaded, self-destructive character plays against the affable screen presence audiences mostly know him for. We can’t help but wonder how much truth there might be to the simmering rivalry between these two actors. As the more practical and responsible older brother who must deal with an indolent younger sibling who is far more attractive and exciting, Beau Bridges brings warmth and humor to his performance as the put-upon, de facto leader of the band. But he’s outshined by his little brother Jeff who does practically nothing for the first half of this picture except pretend to play piano, smoke cigarettes, look disenchanted, and ooze sex appeal. This film solidified Jeff Bridges as the kind of movie star we’ve rarely seen since the studio system collapsed. He has a Humphrey Bogart quality to him that makes us want to watch him no matter what he’s doing—and he makes smoking look sexier than any actor since Bogie. Jeff Bridges would, of course, go on to many more challenging and memorable roles, but for Beau and Michelle Pfeiffer, this picture represents a peek. The wonderful Pfeiffer would go on to appear in several significant films over the following decades but none that showcased her the way this one does. 

The effortlessly elegant Pfeiffer, who was riding a streak of fantastic ‘80s performances (Scarface, Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob, Tequila Sunrise, and Dangerous Liaisons), is a revelation in this picture. She’d sung before, in Grease 2, but was never trained as a vocalist. She worked with a coach for a few months before production and became an impressive chanteuse in the days long before auto-tune enabled any actor to pull off credible singing in a movie. And she performs most of these songs without relying on elaborate string orchestrations to support her vocals—it’s mostly just her solo voice backed by the two pianos. The musical numbers in this picture are so much fun that even if you’re not a fan of this style of music—and the film goes out of its way to point out how cheesy or bland standards from "The Great American Songbook" can be when badly interpreted—you can’t help but thrill to these renditions. One of the year’s most recognizable images was from of Pfeiffer atop Jeff Bridges’ piano singing the then comically dated jazz standard "Makin' Whoopee” and transforming it into an authentically sexy number.

Twitter Capsule:
The combination of Pfeiffer and the Bridges Brothers helps make Kloves' wonderful throwback to classic Hollywood melodrama sing. Smart, stylish, and sexy, it breathes new life into a familiar formula the way Pfeiffer's chanteuse reinvigorates the tired standards of a sibling piano duo.

Directed by Steve Kloves
Produced by Paula Weinstein and Mark Rosenberg

Written by Steve Kloves

With: Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer, Beau Bridges, Albert Hall, and Jennifer Tilly

Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Editing: William Steinkamp
Music: Dave Grusin

Runtime: 114 min
Release Date: 13 October 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color