Romantic 'It Could Happen to You' is big-hearted and delightful


"It Could Happen to You" will undoubtedly be compared to "Sleepless in Seattle." But this romantic comedy is a much better constructed and more affecting film than the sloppily sentimental "Sleepless."

The new film confirms the position of its stars, Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda, as perhaps the finest American screen actors of their generation. More important, it signals that its director, Andrew Bergman, has finally delivered on his considerable comic gifts. His previous films ("The In-Laws," "Soap Dish," "Honeymoon in Vegas" and "The Freshman") have been zany and imaginative. But their success was often qualified by Bergman's parochial New York humor and by his tendency to let his comic exuberance run away with itself.

This is not to say that Bergman has abandoned his New York roots. The city has rarely looked as beautiful as it does here. The opening shot immediately establishes candidacy for inclusion in film school textbooks. We're on the roof of an apartment building in one of the most depressingly drab neighborhoods in Queens; a woman is taking down her wash from a laundry line; as she pulls away a bedsheet that has obstructed our vision, the camera suddenly reveals a breathtaking panorama of the Manhattan skyline and then, just as suddenly, the title, "It Could Happen to You," flashes into view. The effect is magical, setting the mood for greater magic to come.

The story has all the simplicity and resonance of a fable. A good-hearted cop, Charlie Lang (Cage), doesn't have enough cash to tip waitress Yvonne Biasi (Fonda) after paying his $2 bill. Because Yvonne looks miserable and because he feels sorry for her -- she has just learned that her sleazy, estranged husband (Stanley Tucci) has stolen her credit card and bankrupted her -- he shows her the lottery ticket he has just bought. If he wins, he'll split the pot with her; if he doesn't, he'll come back and give her a tip.

Charlie does win -- $4 million. Even more amazingly, he gives $2 million to Yvonne, delighting New York's news media, which shine a spotlight on this white-knight cop and the damsel-in-distress waitress, and infuriating his harridan of a wife, Muriel (Rosie Perez).

"Stiff her!" Muriel pleads. "Stiff her and smell the flowers -- for me!"

Charlie's too nice for that -- "A promise is a promise," he says.

Yvonne is just as nice.

"She's got customers with AIDS," Charlie tells Muriel, "and she treats them like an angel!"

They're meant for each other.

In recent years we've had several movies with characters who have been transformed into beacons of goodness by either becoming a simpleton (getting shot in the head in "Regarding Henry") or being born one ("Forrest Gump").

"It Could Happen to You" is not such a movie. Charlie and Yvonne are intelligent people, who also happen to be kind. And it's filled with a multitude of closely observed characters and details: The first extravagant thing the heretofore impoverished Yvonne does is buy a giant-size can of macadamia nuts -- a small, but all the more significant, luxury; the garishly pink shower curtain in the Lang apartment is exactly what we'd expect of the tasteless Muriel.

And the love story in this PG-rated film -- the only graphic display of affection between Charlie and Yvonne is a kiss -- is one of the sexiest in years. Before Charlie tells Yvonne that she's rich, he gives her a Tiffany chain for the eye glasses she's always losing, and fastens it around her neck.

The atmosphere is palpably charged with sexuality. Both characters -- as they come close to, but avoid touching -- have the tremulous look that betrays the onset of sexual desire and romantic love.

In "Sleepless in Seattle," the idea that two people are fated to fall in love with each other was simply mere fantasy. In "It Could Happen to You," that fantasy has a deep mythic substratum. There is, for example, the film's narrator, Angel (Isaac Hayes). Angel looks like an Afro-Caribbean version of an Old Testament Prophet, which -- along with his name -- multiplies the movie's parabolic, mythic resonances.

But he is more than just a symbolic presence. Angel becomes the plot's linchpin, and we learn that there is a very good reason he knows everything.

"It Could Happen to You"

Starring Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda

Directed by Andrew Bergman

Released by TriStar Pictures

Rated PG

*** 1/2

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