The 90s on Netflix: It Could Happen To You (1994)
Mark Harrison | On 14, Feb 2023
Director: Andrew Bergman
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez, Isaac Hayes, Stanley Tucci
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. He flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
Appropriately enough for a movie about winning the lottery, 1994’s It Could Happen to You is built upon several variables that were vanishingly uncommon in media throughout the rest of the decade – the integrity of American police officers, the standing of the News Corp-owned New York Post and, the bonus ball, Nicolas Cage as a romantic comedy lead.
Saintly NYPD beat cop Charlie Lang (Cage) is kind and generous and unaccountably married to selfish, greedy, rude high-school sweetheart Muriel (Rosie Perez). World-weary waitress Yvonne Biasi (Bridget Fonda) is similarly unlucky in love, unable to afford a divorce from the conniving husband (Stanley Tucci) who bankrupted her.
The two collide when Charlie comes up short for a tip at her diner and promises her either double the tip or half of whatever he wins in that evening’s state lottery. Of course, he wins $4 million and, much to Muriel’s chagrin, big-hearted Charlie keeps his promise and gives Yvonne half of their winnings, drawing massive media interest in the process.
Filmed under the working title Cop Gives Waitress Million Dollar Tip, the film’s story was ripped from the headlines, or more specifically from a 1984 People Magazine article headlined “After 24 Years Pushing Pizza, Waitress Phyllis Penzo Gets a Tip to Remember: $3 Million”. When they jointly picked their lottery numbers, both Penzo and Officer Robert Cunningham were happily married to other people at the time of the incident and when the film adaptation came out, so this is a totally fictionalised version of the story.
This gives director Andrew Bergman and writer Jane Anderson creative licence to hard-pedal the New York fairy tale angle of the story, whether directly saying so in the dialogue, or having other characters repeatedly refer to Charlie and Yvonne as “the cop and the waitress”, a la Beauty and the Beast or The Princess and the Pea.
Combined with the Frank Capra-esque tone and Cage and Fonda’s soft-as-a-baby’s-bum chemistry, it’s an altogether charming prospect for the first half at least. With today’s eyes, Cage makes an exceptionally odd modern analogue to James Stewart but before he stepped up his action-movie choices from Con Air onwards, he was a champ at this kind of thing. Fonda’s Yvonne is by turns cynical and overjoyed to have met him and when they inevitably fall for each other, it’s a lovely match.
Funnily enough, the movie only over-eggs the mix of fantasy and reality when consequences unfold. Rosie Perez is very funny throughout, but the plot requires her to be wickeder than any witch and she becomes a flatter, more uncomplicated villain in the film’s second half. The trouble starts once she’s paired with Richard Jenkins, who here plays the less funny version of the divorce lawyer he plays in the Coen brothers’ chaotic screwball rom-com Intolerable Cruelty.
By the time it implausibly remounts the finale of It’s A Wonderful Life on a citywide scale, it’s gone two or three subway stops too far from the simplicity of that original premise. For the duration, it paddles against the Gen-X cynicism of pop culture at the time, but after it literally roller-blades into a pond – that’s some nice flailing, Nic! – the characters become cartoonish and perfunctory.
At all points, Charlie’s unimpeachable goodness teeters on the edge of “copaganda”, but it’s more a shame that Yvonne’s characterisation bears no curiosity about how that life-changing sum of money might actually change someone’s day-to-day life. Plus, the second half of the film is wallpapered with promotional consideration for The New York Post, finally topped by an absurd revelation about Isaac Hayes’ narrator, Angel – had he actually been Heaven-sent, that would’ve been more credible.
Moderately well received in reviews and at the box office, It Could Happen to You isn’t the kind of rom-com they don’t make any more, but they didn’t look half as old-fashioned as this does. The transition from feel-good charm to broad, depressing schmaltz is massively disappointing within the film itself, but it somehow feels like the writing on the wall for the overall decline of Hollywood romantic comedies over the next couple of decades. We’d get better rom-coms after this, but much worse ones too.
The film hit US cinemas in July 1994, but it can’t be a coincidence that the release on this side of the pond was held back until 11th November that year, just one week before the launch of the UK’s first-ever National Lottery draw. Its slogan, “it could be you”, could have been inspired by this – but, like that slogan, there’s a whole lot of bonus balls attached to the promise of treasure.
Next Time on The 90s On Netflix
“Our whole lives are on the computer, and they knew, they knew that I could be vanished. They knew that nobody would care, that nobody would understand, and that you would, that it wouldn’t matter anymore.”