Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Fabulous Baker Boys – Sibling Rivalry, Sibling Loyalty

Written by Steve Kloves
Directed by Steve Kloves

On the surface, The Fabulous Baker Boys seems like another story about being unable to cope with the changing times. However, it’s also a tale of complex familial relationships and how much someone is willing to sacrifice in their own life to give a sibling a boost. The question becomes, how long should this go on?

Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges star in this film about two brothers who are jazz pianists, Jack and Frank Baker. Times are changing and their repertoire of schmaltzy club songs is getting them nowhere, fast. With bookings declining, they make the decision to take on a female singer. Enter “Susie Diamond” (portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer), a former escort who was told she had talent. Both Jack and Frank roll their eyes when she first turns up on their doorstep. Soon, she turns their world upside down and brings them to the brink of success.

However, the relationship between the brothers is strained. Jack has allowed Frank to run the business and it wasn’t going well. When Susie gets a good offer and leaves, it causes Jack to re-think a lot of what he’s allowed to happen through the years. Frank blames Jack for Susie’s departure.

Initially, it would seem that Frank is the one who has it all together. He seems to shoulder the burden for much of the brothers’ act and he has the responsibility of a wife and family to support. Jack is divorced and the only responsibility he has is his dog and as a reluctant father figure to a pre-teen who lives one floor above him, Nina (portrayed by Ellie Raab). However, as the movie draws on, and especially after Susie’s departure, it becomes clear that Jack is the real talent of the two. He has spent his life holding back and trying to be a good brother, which has gotten in the way of his own potential.

The acting is terrific. The casting of two actual brothers in this film was extremely beneficial and brings to it an undercurrent of real conflict that would be hard to accomplish with two ordinary actors in the roles. I suspect they drew on their own sibling rivalry to evoke some of the emotion running through the film. Jeff Bridges has Jack coasting through life, allowing his brother to shoulder the responsibility and make the decisions. There were so many dimensions to the character as he hit a point in his life where he couldn’t go back to what they were doing before once Susie left. He had a taste of what his potential could bring him, and he wasn’t willing to settle any longer for whatever scraps the two were thrown just to pay the bills.

Beau Bridges portrays Frank as unable to change. This is despite it being his idea to bring in the singer. He’s only doing so out of desperation and he still wants to play the same songs and do the same routines. He’s the same as the resorts from the 1950s that were unable to change with the times and ended up closing, still scratching their heads as to what went wrong. The resentment of his brother is evident from the beginning, although it’s masked by Frank’s seeming disdain for Jack’s irresponsibility. However, as the characters grew through the film, it becomes apparent that Frank resents Jack because he knows just how much he needs him. It’s probably the performance of his career and left me scratching my head as to why he seemed to not get much in the way of recognition through the years.

By far, though, the standout performance is that of Michelle Pfeiffer. If nothing else, the fact that she sang most of her own songs will surprise anyone who’s seen her through the years. She is a catalyst here and starts out as a diamond in the rough that the two brothers must shape. At the same time, she doesn’t take on Eliza Doolittle’s qualities of neediness or depending on them. Her independence shines through even as she’s receptive to the Baker Brothers’ coaching. Pfeiffer conveys the transition quite well and very smoothly. At the same time, she manages to keep Susie from being one-dimensional as her loneliness shines through, the same as Jack’s. Is it any wonder the two are drawn together?

Pfeiffer gives memorable performance scenes once Susie has become comfortable in her role as a lounge singer, especially once she and Jack are left on their own without Frank holding them back. The talent of the two together shines like never before, and Pfeiffer is absolutely wonderful singing Makin’ Whoopee on top of Jack’s piano.

Filmed around Seattle in the late 1980s, The Fabulous Baker Boys does well in that setting as Director Steven Kloves uses the dreariness of the rain-soaked city to convey the dreariness of their lives, along with the darkness which comes from performing at night. It also conveys just how out of synch the act is with the time, with Frank at the helm.

I hadn’t seen The Fabulous Baker Boys in years and it was refreshing to watch it again and enjoy the immense talent contained within. It’s well worth checking out and I suspect those who have endured the intense sibling rivalry that often occurs in families will understand all too well the dynamic taking place.