Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Thieving Magpies of Paradise

Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
"Trapped in Paradise" was savagely excoriated by critics when it first opened in December of 1994. I recall that year that Nicolas Cage appeared in the serviceable comedy "It Could Happen to You" and the harmless and deadening comedy-drama, "Guarding Tess." "Trapped in Paradise" is far better than both though it is hardly a Yuletide classic. For my money, it has more laughs and charm than I expected from almost any Christmas-themed movie since 1994.

The Firpo brothers are quite a bunch. Bill Firpo (Nicolas Cage) runs a restaurant and is the most moral of the brothers. The other two nitwits, compulsive liar Dave and kleptomaniac Alvin (Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey) are bank robbers who are let out of jail a little too prematurely. Bill can't stand them and their schemes. Thanks to a letter from a convict, the trio find themselves in Paradise, Pennsylvania during Christmas Eve to help locate Sarah (Madchen Amick), the daughter of the convict. Before you can say entrapment, the Firpo brothers successfully rob a bank wearing silly ski masks but have a lot of trouble getting out of Paradise. The denizens of this town are as polite and forgiving as anyone in Bedford Falls (the name of the town in "It's a Wonderful Life") so stealing their money (they all have a stake in the local bank, not the big corporate ones - a timely gesture in reflection) seems downright wrong to Bill.

As written by writer-director George Gallo (he directed the witty "29th Street" and he co-wrote the fabulous "Midnight Run"), "Trapped in Paradise" heads down the icy, snowy roads with a horsesled in tow in pretty much the way you expect. You know from the first minute that Bill meets Sarah that the two will at least share a kiss in the final reel. You know the townsfolk will be supernaturally understanding when they unsuspectingly take in these three robbers and discover their true identities. In fact, the last half of the film so closely resembles "It's a Wonderful Life's" last ten minutes that I was shocked Jimmy Stewart didn't show up. I could have lived without the endless police cars and FBI units on the robbers' tail (though Richard Jenkins is a hoot as an FBI agent who hates Paradise, hence, the Gallo connection with "Midnight Run" that had its own brand of angry FBI agents). I might also have lived without the subplot of the two excons in pursuit of the Firpo brothers (they are played by Frank Pesce and, former bodyguard for the late producer Don Simpson, Vic Manni, both of whom appeared in "Beverly Hills Cop II"). They simply deter from the fun of watching the Firpo brothers.

Nicolas Cage is always a joy to watch and, here, he is a little more restrained than even in "Honeymoon in Vegas." His opening scenes where he goes to confession and deliberates returning a wallet he found in a train station is classic. Jon Lovitz is also funny to watch, and also a bit more restrained. Dana Carvey does a whole Mickey Rourke bit that is sublime in its comic timing - when he speaks, he can grate one's nerves but his physical body language is a major plus.

"Trapped in Paradise" is a jovial, sweet and warm-hearted comedy, never straining for too much sentiment and never too overplayed or overdone. I laughed a lot more than the critics did at the time, thus I never felt I was trapped in a so-called turkey.

P.S. An imdb user made this following claim: "I saw this movie in a film class I took in Manhattan at the time the movie came out and they interviewed Jon Lovitz as part of the class. Do you know what he called this movie? Trapped In S**T! Says something doesn't it?"