It’s parsley,” says susie diamond, A professional escort turned singer on the cocktail-lounge circuit. She’s trying to explain to Frank Baker (Beau Bridges), one-half of the piano-playing duo that employs her — Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges) is the other half- why she wants to cut that shopworn standard “Feelings” from the act Frank, a worrywart with a wife, kids, a mortgage and a penchant for pop drivel, is stung. “It’s parsley,” Susie says again. “Take it away and no one would know the difference.”
Let’s say one thing right out: Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Susie, is not parsley. Take her out of this movie, and the movie would evaporate. Early in her career, Pfeiffer lent her luminous looks to a load of duds (Grease 2, Scarface, Ladyhawke). Then in 1986, wickedly sending up an ambitious Hollywood diva in Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty, she showed signs of being as gifted as she is gorgeous. Her follow-up roles in The Witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob, Tequila Sunrise and Dangerous Liaisons, the last winning her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, promised a force to be reckoned with. Now she makes good on that promise. Pfeiffer is a knockout; she’s the sexiest presence in movies today and an exceptional comic and dramatic actress, to boot.
From her first entrance, Pfeiffer charges things up. Susie has come to audition for the Baker boys, who think a girl singer might add glitz and bookings to their limp fifteen-year-old act. The boys have already heard thirty-seven hilariously off-key canaries (Jennifer Tilly crucifying “The Candy Man” is the funniest) before Susie shows up. She’s late, her heel is broken, and she’s got gum stuck to her lip. Yet Susie cons the boys into listening to her warble “More Than You Know.” Pfeiffer does her own vocalizing — she’s good enough to keep you attentive (if not eager to buy the soundtrack). But Jack thinks that Susie’s sweet voice, and sumptuous body add up to a hot combo.
He’s right. At first, Susie, with her French cigarettes, world-weary manner and four-letter vocabulary, seems all brash surface. But Pfeiffer lets us see the scared kid inside. When Jack, a jazz talent who hates himself for wasting his life noodling out elevator music for drunks, starts responding to the emotion Susie puts into her songs, she bristles. Susie recognizes herself in Jack: They’re both losers who’ve sold themselves on the cheap. But her attraction to Jack is real. On one of their better gigs, at a resort hotel, she lets it show. Atop Jack’s piano in a slinky red dress, Susie sings a torchy -version of “Makin’ Whoopee” that brings down the house and her defenses.
Up to this point, screenwriter Steve Kloves (Racing With the Moon), in his directing debut, has made a dream of a romantic comedy, one that’s sharply funny and resonant. But in the last quarter, Kloves comes down with a terminal case of the glums. The focus switches to the brothers and their resentments. Kloves’s writing and direction turn from clever to clumsy. The bounce goes out of the movie until Pfeiffer returns to wrap things up with a wistful smile and a song. When the script allows them to have fun, the Bridges brothers are a winning pair. But make no mistake: It’s Michelle Pfeiffer who puts the “fabulous” into Baker Boys.