The Fabulous Baker Boys, released in 1989 and written and directed by Steven Kloves, is a romantic comedy in which the “romance” manifests itself between two brothers, rather than in a conventional male-female relationship. This decidedly moody film, paralleled by its turbulent production process, about two brothers, Jack and Frank, with a long-standing piano nightclub act stars Jeff and Beau Bridges as the title characters. Strapped for cash, the brothers recruit a hot, young singer named Susie (Michelle Pfeiffer) to spice up the act. Jack and Susie have romantic chemistry, and while at first it might seem like Frank will express his interest in Susie, as well, it is soon abundantly clear that the only person Frank is interested in is his younger brother. Obviously, it is not a sexual attraction, but they function as the film’s romantic couple, caught in the genre’s familiar tropes. Released in the late 1980s, the film reflects the uncertain social climate of the time in Jack’s angry solitude, the characters’ financially precarious world, and class tensions. Within the romantic comedy genre, The Fabulous Baker Boys emerges as a comedy of romance, in which the logistics of relationships are explored rather than whether or not two people will simply end up together. The film has a historical lineage in its similarities to The Heartbreak Kid, both featuring the archetype of the self-exploratory male, and its implementation of genre conventions in order to tell an unconventional love story about two brothers.
During one of many heated brotherly battles in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Frank (Beau Bridges) whips a kiwi at his younger brother Jack (Jeff Bridges) in their shared hotel suite. Jack responds by hurling a pineapple at him. Watching incredulously from the doorway of her room, Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer) muses, “It’s like the fucking Newlywed Game.” Indeed, even though the film might appear to be about the relationship between Jack and Susie, it is quite clear from the beginning that this is a romantic comedy about two brothers. From the time of its conception until its release, The Fabulous Baker Boys encountered numerous obstacles. Released in 1989, the film indicates the nation’s exhaustion at the end of a tumultuous decade. Within the romantic comedy genre, The Fabulous Baker Boys is a direct descendent of The Heartbreak Kid, with some significant differences. Both films feature an apathetic protagonist overflowing with self-loathing. The Fabulous Baker Boys endured an arduous production process that contributed to the mood of the film, reflects the precarious social climate at the end of the 1980s, and represents the romantic comedy genre by exploring existing conventions.
Since no film can ever escape its social context, it makes sense that The Fabulous Baker Boys, a film about a family musical act that does not seem to have any particular agenda, still mirrors the society in which it was produced. Just a few weeks after the film was released, the Berlin Wall crumbled, effectively bringing an end to the Soviet Union’s Communist reign and leading directly to its collapse and the end of the Cold War. While The Fabulous Baker Boys certainly did not precipitate these monumental events in any way, it is important to note the chaotic state of the world at the time of its release. Perhaps Jack’s confusion and anger about his place in life, consciously or not, parallels the global situation and increasing tensions in the United States over the Cold War.
Throughout the film, Jack inexplicably takes care of a young girl who lives in the same apartment building. Her mother totally neglects her, but since “family displacement had a growing effect on children during the 1980s” (Kallen 68), she represents an indictment of that trend. Also, during the decade, “studies showed that the gulf between rich and poor grew wider” (Kallen 60), and nowhere is that more evident than in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Jack, Frank, and even Susie perform in places they could never afford, and the entire film takes place against the backdrop of a rundown Seattle, peppered with homeless shelters and dilapidated buildings. The bleak setting and class issues also serve as a reminder of the downfalls of the greed plaguing America at the time, because “the 1980s will be remembered as an era of high-flying mergers, frenzied investment, corporate raiders, S&L collapse, and a roller-coaster stock market” (Kallen 61). The Fabulous Baker Boys remains a virtual time capsule of the late-1980s by exploring, inadvertently or not, political, economic, and social issues.
When it comes to romantic comedies, they do not always focus on conventional sexual relationships. Granted, The Fabulous Baker Boys does end with Jack and Susie’s likely romantic union, but a strong argument can be made that the film is really about the relationship between the two brothers, and Susie is only the irritant that stimulates change. The brothers are even total opposites, the quintessential odd couple. Jack, the younger brother, is acerbic and rebellious, while the married Frank is the uptight square. They have been playing professionally for fifteen years and bicker like an old married couple. When they first hire Susie to sing with them, Frank appears attracted to her, which sets up a Sabrina scenario. However, nothing ever transpires, and she functions solely to bring out Frank’s jealousy. In a borderline creepy scene, the three of them get drunk, which prompts Frank to shower Jack with compliments, calling him “brilliant” over and over. Frank gazes at the sky and reflects, “It was just like this on our honeymoon. The moon, the stars…Remember, Jack?” He matter-of-factly responds, “I wasn’t there.” Frank then proceeds to dreamily watch Jack and Susie dance under the moonlight.
In the 1960s, the romantic comedy definitively branched off into two separate paths – the more traditional romantic comedy in which boy gets girl, and the comedy of romance which explores the intricacies of human relationships. During this reconstruction, a new archetype emerged, called the outsider or the self-exploratory male. He oozes self-loathing, lacks social skills, and is extremely bitter and cynical. This archetype appears in both The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Heartbreak Kid, with slight variations. Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) in The Heartbreak Kid is callous, selfish, superficial, confused, and does not believe in anything. He marries Lila (Jeannie Berlin) and immediately gets annoyed with her. At a diner, he grits his teeth, grinning with faux enthusiasm, and tells her, “There’s a lot of things that you didn’t notice about me, and a lot of things I never noticed about you.” He then falls for Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) on his honeymoon, prompting him to break up with Lila in the middle of a restaurant.
On the other hand, Jack Baker at least recognizes his flaws at the end of The Fabulous Baker Boys. Still, he is very much from the same mold of the self-loathing male. His speech consists of monosyllabic grunts. He hurts everyone he knows because he hates himself so much for not pursuing his dreams. When Susie tries to reason with him, he counters, “I didn’t know whores were so philosophical.” Like Lenny, he has no clue what he is doing with his life. Frank rightfully assesses, “You never could commit to anything, even a conversation.” However, The Fabulous Baker Boys offers a much more hopeful, if not more unrealistic, ending. Jack realizes the error of his ways and makes amends for his hostile behavior. He will be okay, but Lenny will not. The Fabulous Baker Boys does not really contribute anything unique or revolutionary to the genre, but its connection to The Heartbreak Kid highlights a very distinct evolutionary lineage in romantic comedies.
All in all, The Fabulous Baker Boys remains an unremarkable, yet sufficiently endearing example of the modern romantic comedy. So while the film does break with tradition in the sense of focusing on two brothers, it sticks painfully close to conventions in every other respect.