La Cage aux Folles (1978) was apparently a huge success; itself based on a play, the film spawned two sequels and a remake. My own viewing of the film, twenty-three years later on DVD, led me to ponder the highly variable nature of humor. Drama is universal in its ability to touch the emotions and reactions of the viewer through what happens to the characters. Comedy, on the other hand, relies on drawing a reaction directly from the audience, generally through reversing the audience's expectations about what happens to the characters. As time passes, culture shifts and viewer expectations change, and what was funny to one audience falls flat for a later audience. There's a good reason why most modern film versions of Shakespeare plays, for instance, cut most or all of the humorous interludes from the tragedies; the drama stands the test of time, but the parts that were hilarious to the Elizabethans draw blank looks from modern viewers.
At least, that's the only explanation that I can come up with for my reaction to La Cage aux Folles. Otherwise I'd have to start spinning conspiracy theories: did everyone see a different movie that I did? I was looking forward to seeing this movie that I'd heard about, but I ended up watching the clock for when it would finally end, wondering how something so basically unfunny could get billed as a comedy at all, much less as a good comedy.
Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault play Renato and Albin, a gay couple and proprietors of a transvestite nightclub called "La Cage aux Folles," are surprised to find that Renato's son Laurent (from a brief fling twenty years ago) is... getting married. (Horror of horrors.. to a woman!) That's not the least of it, however: in order to convince his fiancée's ultra-conservative parents, Laurent has to pass off Renato and Albin as a normal husband and wife when the future in-laws come to dinner. All in all, it sounds like a mildly amusing situation. Unfortunately, it's not.
To begin with, the film basically consists of a very long, drawn-out set-up for the "set piece" of the dinner-table confrontation. Frankly, it's dull and pointless; the premise might be enough for a sketch, but it doesn't stretch to fill a full-length movie, even one that's only 97 minutes long. I could count on one hand the moments that I actually smiled during the movie, let alone laughed.
I suspect that the film's humor is supposed to come from the characters; unfortunately, I found them all utterly unengaging. The protagonists (Albin and Renato) are genuinely unlikable. It's not uncommon to derive humor from the sparks thrown off by the relationship of an "odd couple," but there has to be some indication of mutual affection to make the conflict funny rather than merely unpleasant. In La Cage aux Folles, if there is any indication of genuine mutual respect, love, or even liking between Renato and Albin, it must have been too subtle indeed. Albin is excessively needy, clinging, and self-centered; Renato apparently views Albin as a necessary nuisance since Albin owns 80% of their nightclub.
Of the other characters, in some cases the would-be humorous caricaturing is carried too far, to the point of being unpleasant rather than merely absurd, as with the girl's pompous father, while in other cases the characterization is too one-dimensional to even evoke dislike, as with Laurent, the cardboard son-figure whose engagement is at the center of the story.
About the only interesting part of watching the movie, for me, was noticing how the film illustrates the changing nature of "good taste." Renato and Albin's house is, apparently, supposed to represent the height of garish bad taste, as they find it necessary to basically totally redecorate to make the house look "straight" before their guests arrive. But to my eye, with the exception of a few obviously phallic knickknacks, everything looked normal, if a bit cluttered. In fact, I thought that the classical Greek-style statues of naked men, which they were at pains to hide, looked very stylish. I wonder what the styles of today will seem like in twenty years; will the "punk" look seem tame?
Could MGM have done a worse job of transferring this film to DVD? Wait, I probably don't want to know the answer to that question. Suffice it to say that the image quality of La Cage aux Folles is pretty bad. The 1.66:1 transfer is non-anamorphic, but if you have a widescreen TV, don't even think about using the zoom feature to fill your screen, unless you enjoy looking at featureless blobs. Scratches and flaws from the original print abound, and the overall picture is grainy and noisy.
Prepare to be underwhelmed by the sound as well. Both the original French and the dubbed English soundtracks are in Dolby 2.0 mono, which is barely adequate for the dialogue. In general it's slightly muffled-sounding, except for the occasional harsh note when somebody screeches.
There are none, unless you count the subtitles as an extra. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
Some comedies are just not particularly funny. La Cage aux Folles was not only unfunny, but generally rather disagreeable. Especially given the lousy DVD transfer, this one is only for die-hard fans of the film or students of French who are in desperate need for something, anything, to watch in French.