Andrew Bergman's IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU is a genial romantic comedy that tries hard, maybe too hard, to be another SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. Like Bergman's earlier films, THE FRESHMAN and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, it contains streaks of darkness rare in mainstream fare, but, for the most part, has
opted for a brighter approach, sacrificing the very quirkiness that might have best served its narrative.
Originally called "Cop Tips Waitress $2M," Bergman's film is loosely based on a real-life incident in which a New York policeman and a waitress shared a winning lottery ticket. Officer Charlie Lang (Nicolas Cage) is a cop whose devotion to duty and the neighborhood kids hasn't been seen around
Gotham since Pat O'Brien moved on. When Charlie isn't playing stickball with local youngsters, he's carrying a blind man across a busy street. Yvonne Biasi (Bridget Fonda) is an equally agreeable soul, a waitress at a Tribeca coffee shop, who rivals Will Rogers, if not Mother Teresa, in her
fondness for humanity. When Charlie, short on cash and rushing to a crime scene, tips her with half a lottery ticket he has just bought, promising to split any winnings with her, Yvonne takes his gesture in stride. After all, that very day, wasn't she forced to declare bankruptcy thanks to the
profligacy of her estranged husband? When Charlie's ticket wins, to the tune of $4 million, his wife Muriel (Rosie Perez) objects to sharing their jackpot with a total stranger. But Charlie is such a decent sort: Didn't he give his word?
The saga of the "Lotto Cop and Waitress" becomes a favorite story of The New York Post. Yvonne buys the coffee shop and gives out free meals to the sick and needy; Charlie just stays on his beat until he's wounded foiling a robbery attempt. While Muriel accumulates furs and jewelry, soulmates
Charlie and Yvonne spend time together, renting out Yankee Stadium for kids to play in and treating commuters to free subway rides. Muriel sues Charlie for divorce, demanding all of Charlie's money and Yvonne's as well. At a trial made for the tabloids, Charlie is depicted as an abusive husband,
Yvonne as a gold-digger, and Muriel as a saint. Muriel wins. Penniless, Charlie and Yvonne plan a new life together. A final tabloid story about the sweethearts touches New Yorkers so much that they begin sending Charlie and Yvonne money. Some $600,000 later, Yvonne keeps the restaurant, Charlie
happily returns to the force, and they wed. Muriel ends up losing all her money to a swindler.
"Think Jimmy Stewart," Bergman reportedly told Cage in rehearsals, and, clearly, this actor took that direction to heart. His Charlie Lang recalls the young Stewart of YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. He represents the moral center of IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU, midway between
Yvonne's bruised hopefulness and Muriel's grasping anger, which eventually spins out of control. Cage's work is subtle, yet authoritative, and he makes you care about Charlie long after the film has begun to unravel. Fonda exhibits an interesting comic flair and is never less than appealing, even
if Yvonne, like Charlie, is often too good to be true. In the film's choicest role, Rosie Perez opts for an energetic interpretation which some viewers may resist, given her modest range and occasionally garbled line readings. But Wendell Pierce is funny and believable as Charlie's partner on the
Entertaining as it sometimes is, IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU has such a puppy-dog determination to be liked that you want to get it off your lap. Like Norman Jewison's MOONSTRUCK, a movie which it resembles on a superficial level, it wants to tell a fairy tale of New York, but, unlike MOONSTRUCK, it
lacks the imagination to do it. Writer Jane Anderson is a gifted scenarist who seems constrained by a Hollywood formula which places the happy romantic ending on the horizon like a beacon to stare at for nearly two hours. For the record, the film's title is linked not to the gently ironic Johnny
Burke/James Van Heusen song of the same name, but to a line in the more prosaic "Young At Heart," further evidence that, in searching for a romantic blockbuster, the filmmakers have chosen the safe and familiar over the offbeat and bracing.
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