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RICH HUMOR

It has taken a couple of weeks to catch up with Andrew Bergman's new comedy, but the rewards are still there.

It Could Happen to You, a New York fairy tale about a sweet-tempered cop and a good-as-gold waitress who split a $4 million lottery jackpot, lightens up a bit on Bergman's usual surreal tilt (dare we call it Bergmanesque?). But this is one of the funniest moviemakers in America, and fans of The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas shouldn't be too disappointed that he's frosted the cake this time out with a little schmaltz.

Like the fresh-faced college student who got tangled up with a real-life Godfather, or the rube who lost his fiancee to a Las Vegas card shark, Bergman's protagonists are babes in the woods, likable outsiders in a world of comic treacheries. Charlie Lang (sleepy-eyed Nicolas Cage) is a kind, gentle, too-good-to-be-true New York cop who delivers babies on buses, carries blind men across the street and plays stickball with the neighborhood kids. Yvonne Biasi (Bridget Fonda) is a kind, gentle, too-good-to-be-true coffee-shop waitress who speaks kindly to ogres and fools.

They're made for each other, of course, but married to other people--Charlie to a social-climbing shrew from the Bronx (Rosie Perez, shrieking at her highest volume), Yvonne to a sleazy "actor" (Stanley Tucci) who's run her credit-card bill up to bankruptcy size. Can the Cop and the Waitress, as the tabloids come to call them, find true love? It won't be easy.

The screenplay, by Jane Anderson, is based on the true story of a New York cop who offered to split the lottery ticket he'd just bought with a waitress--as a tip. She agreed. They won. And that, apparently, is where the similarities between life and art end. For one thing, the closing credits are careful to point out, the original people have both been happily married for years.

But what kind of movie would that make?
"Will there be anything else?" the downtrodden (but still lovely) Yvonne is accustomed to asking her customers. It's also a question she must ask herself: Life doesn't hold many possibilities until, true to his word, goody-goody Charlie splits his winning $4 million ticket with her, over the furious protests of his wife.

Ingenuous and squeaky-clean as they are, the protagonists threaten all movie long to become the least interesting people in it. Certainly, Bergman has created another gallery of New York grotesques so funny that we're drawn even more strongly to them. There's Perez's Muriel, of course, whose ambitious little head is full of product endorsements, pretensions and sheer greed. Seymour Cassel, the John Cassavetes stalwart, does another splendid turn as an oily "investment strategist" looking to fleece the city's instant millionaires. Tucci's vain, preening Eddie is the picture of failed theatrics. Throw in an army of pushy tabloid reporters chasing a story and a couple of avaricious lawyers chasing the millions, and the caricature is complete. Like all of Andrew Bergman's heroes, Charlie and Yvonne are fish out of water. Or minnows thrown in with sharks. Something like that.

There's also an essential sweetness in Bergman's work, underscored here by the romantic Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Billie Holiday tunes on the soundtrack. What all his movies say, just under the laughter, is that honesty, goodness and kindness can still prevail in a mad world. Still, Bergman's Queens-bred humor owes more to Kafka than to Capra, so he always sets the hearts and flowers out at an odd angle. You suspect him of laughing behind his hand, and that's not a bad thing.

 
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