When you have real-life brothers portraying brothers, you're bound to elicit some interesting dynamics. At least that's the case with The Fabulous Baker Boys. A modest box-office success upon its 1989 theatrical release, the film chiefly earned raves at the time for a memorable star turn by Michelle Pfeiffer. But the movie still holds up for its rich characterization and a remarkably self-assured directorial debut by screenwriter Steven Kloves.
Off-screen brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges play, respectively, Jack and Frank Baker, a struggling duo-piano act mired in the purgatory of Seattle's dimly lit hotel lounges and kitsch-themed supper clubs. After 15 years tinkling the ivories for such smarmy standards as Morris Albert's "Feelings," the wear and tear of showbiz mediocrity is beginning to surface. They routinely perform at bars where they must compete with the sports game on TV, until the ultimate indignity: one oily bar owner actually pays the brothers not to play. That humiliation finally spurs Frank, who handles the business end of the act, to suggest that they take on a female singer. "Two pianos isn't (sic) enough anymore," says Frank. "It never was" is Jack's tart reply.
The auditions for a new singer go as badly as movie conventions dictate they will -- until, that is, a gum-smacking call-girl named Susie Diamond (Pfeiffer) teeters in on her stiletto heels. She is abrasive and belittling, but she is also a stunning beauty -- she's Michelle Pfeiffer, after all -- and her singing isn't half bad. The Fabulous Baker Boys get their songbird, and business starts to pick up. The reason for the turnaround is clear. As one club owner advises, "The shorter the skirt, the bigger the crowd."
But Susie's entrance upsets the brothers' fragile love-hate relationship, especially after she and Jack finally sleep together after a New Year's Eve show at a resort hotel. Resentments long left dormant are brought to the fore. Jack, the cool and smart brother, is a frustrated jazz pianist; for more than 15 years, he has swallowed his pride and stifled his creative impulses in service to domesticated and less-talented -- if more practical -- older brother Frank.
Writer-director Kloves fashions a solid, mature entertainment out of what easily could have been a flimsy formula. His dialogue is occasionally too pat for its own good, but the characters are well-drawn and reasonably complicated. Kloves also gets considerable help from veteran cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas, The Departed), who imbues Baker Boys with a velvety, luxuriant feel.
That isn't to say the film doesn't occasionally hit sour notes. Even by the standards of leisurely paced films, The Fabulous Baker Boys takes its sweet time to kick its dramatic arc into gear. The movie, especially its final act, could've used tighter editing.
But those are minor complaints. Both Bridges are excellent; it might be the pinnacle of Beau Bridges' filmic career. Pfeiffer initially overplays the brassy broad routine (perhaps still channeling her performance from 1988's Married to the Mob), but soon enough she finds her groove as the no-nonsense chanteuse who prods the brooding Jack into rejoining the world of the living. Pfeiffer also does a credible job of doing her own singing, but her performance transcends vocal prowess. Heterosexual males might have trouble watching Pfeiffer's rendition of "Makin' Whoopee" without drooling on themselves.
Shown in 1.85:1 widescreen, the DVD does justice to Michael Ballhaus' exquisite cinematographic work. The picture quality is sharply detailed, with a vivid color palette and inky blacks.
The audio is surprisingly spotty. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is generally crisp and serviceable, but there are stretches in which the sound becomes comparatively muffled and uneven. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.
The DVD is without a wisp of supplemental material – particularly bewildering since this is the film's second incarnation on disc.
The Fabulous Baker Boys is one of Michelle Pfeiffer's finest moments (she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance) but the film also boasts a surprisingly nuanced storyline about brothers who balance familial loyalty with competing motivations. The movie is worth checking out, but a few special features -- hell, any special feature -- would have been more than warranted.