MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Bagdad Cafe’ Serves Quaint, Quirky Version of America

Times Staff Writer

“Bagdad Cafe” (opening Friday at the Guild), an adorable comic fable set in a ramshackle motel-restaurant on the edge of the Mojave Desert, is West German director Percy Adlon’s first English-language film. It is a triumphant teaming of Marianne Sagebrecht, the irresistible Rubens-esque star of Adlon’s “Sugarbaby,” and the formidable black actress CCH Pounder.

This sparkling little gem is not just a hilarious and touching account of the friendship that develops between two women of jarringly different cultures. It also offers a renewed, endearingly quirky vision of America as the land of opportunity, not in the economic sense, but as a place with plenty of room for self-discovery and individuality.

Adlon celebrates the possibilities of a uniquely American sense of community, of harmony between disparate peoples, with an unabashed zest and affection that recalls vintage Frank Capra optimism, filtered through the sophisticated European detachment of a Billy Wilder.

Progressing from bleak reality to Utopian fantasy, “Bagdad Cafe,” which offers the flip side of “Paris, Texas,” is an inspired charmer of the first order abounding in images that recall the quaintly tinted post cards that preserve the history of roadside America. (Bernd Heinl is the film’s first-rate cinematographer.)

To the accompaniment of a jaunty polka on the sound track, a middle-aged German couple (Sagebrecht, Hans Stadlbauer), dressed in heavy-looking Bavarian suits, have a spat in the Mojave, and the wife, Jasmin, strikes out on her own. She trudges down the highway, pulling along a large suitcase on wheels. Brenda (Pounder), the overworked proprietress of the Bagdad Cafe complex, has just told her lazy husband (G. Smokey Campbell) to get lost, when Jasmin comes into view. She’s so unlikely a sight that Brenda’s instant suspiciousness ignites into near-paranoia. Not helping communication is the fact that Jasmin is so stunned by the bold step that she has taken, so in need of sorting herself out, that she’s not ready to explain herself to anyone.


“Bagdad Cafe,” which Adlon wrote with his wife, Eleonore, and Christopher Doherty, is a miracle of timing and control for all its aura of zany, off-the-cuff spontaneity. It is the work of a director who has such a clear idea of what he wants and where he’s going that he can take his time to build up every joke for the maximum payoff.

Yet there’s nothing slow or leisurely about the film: It involves us in its humor the way Hitchcock involved us in his suspense; we can feel that something is always in the works.

With Jasmin and Brenda there is, of course, more than laughs at stake. As skinny, dark and sharply angular as Jasmin is pale, rounded and plump, Brenda is a smart, quick woman with a perpetual hair-trigger temper, the reward of exhaustion. Pride combined with anger blind her to the purity of Jasmin’s motives, her need to be helpful and to become part of Brenda’s extended family.

What a family it is. Her son (Darron Flagg) is a classical pianist caught up entirely in his music (although he found time to father a baby, who’s now another responsibility for his mother). All her pretty teen-age daughter (Monica Calhoun) has on her mind is her headset (and, naturally, boys). George Aquilar is Brenda’s native American cook, who has strung up a hammock behind the counter. Her permanent residents are a sexy, silent tattoo artist (Christine Kaufmann, whom Adlon featured in his gentle Munich period piece, “The Swing”) and a retired Hollywood set painter-turned-primitive artist (Jack Palance), a weathered macho guy who gets away with an exotic Navajo look, complete to headband.

Sagebrecht, Pounder and Palance are a constant revelation and delight. Talk about knowing how to hold a pause: In this ability Pounder is right up there with Meryl Streep as she takes us through Brenda’s rage, and an aftermath of numbed calm, to the dazzling smile and uninhibited laughter of a woman who has rediscovered her long-misplaced sense of humor. Nobody has ever directed Palance the way Adlon has, making him walk a tightrope as he constantly balances the painter’s vast amusement at Jasmin and his growing affection for her. No question about it: Palance, who never goes over the top, emerges as a terrific comedian.

Then there’s Sagebrecht, this amazing actress who, as in “Sugarbaby,” gradually releases the free and alluring spirit lurking inside a massive body. Sagebrecht’s women proceed with a majestic, impenetrably calm determination, cherishing their secrets with a childlike glee. Her Jasmin’s greatest moment occurs after she has mastered a parlor trick and exclaims “Magic!” with a joy that is truly boundless. Magic--that’s what “Bagdad Cafe” is itself. (It’s PG rating is for a bared bosom.)


An Island Pictures release of a pelemele Film GmbH Production in cooperation with Pro-Ject Filmproduktion and BR/HR. Producers Percy and Eleonore Adlon. Director Percy Adlon. Screenplay Percy and Eleonore Adlon; screenplay co-writer Christopher Doherty; based on a story by Percy Adlon. Camera Bernd Heinl. Music Bob Telson. Art director Bernt Amadeus Capra. Costumes Elizabeth Warner, Regine Baetz. Film editor Norbert Herzner. With Marianne Sagebrecht, CCH Pounder, Jack Palance, Monica Calhoun, George Aquilar, Darron Flagg, G. Smokey Campbell, Alan S. Craig, Hans Stadlbauer, Apesanahkwat, Ronald Lee Jarvis, Christine Kaufmann.

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).