Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Overlook: The In-Laws (1979)

by JB
Remember when major studio comedies were actually funny and not just gross or mean spirited? I do.

The In-Laws (1979) is a very funny film. It features funny performances, funny dialogue, and a funny premise. Watching the film again the other night reminded me that comedy seems to be, in terms of Hollywood, a lost art—either that, or generations of moviegoers younger than I am define comedy very differently.

The Plot In Brief: Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin) is a Manhattan dentist whose only daughter is about to get married. Sheldon is anxious to meet his new in-laws, especially father-of-the-groom Vince Ricardo, who he has been told is eccentric. After a rocky first meeting, everything appears to be on schedule, until Vince shows up at the dentist’s office the next day, asking if Sheldon can leave the office for a few minutes to do Vince a little favor. The favor winds up as a three-day adventure that includes trans-continental travel, robbery, murder, and a third-world dictator who likes to talk to a hand puppet.
The In-Laws is full of funny dialogue that arises from character and situation, not some paid punch-up artist’s jokey, pop-culture-addled brain. At one point the great Richard Libertini, playing the dictator, solemnly intones, “I have grown to love you two SO MUCH. I wish that I was not now forced to kill you.” Peter Falk, during a high-speed highway chase (in reverse!) turns to Alan Arkin and posits, “I am such a great driver. It’s inconceivable to me that they took away my driver’s license.”

Peter Falk was a national treasure. Like bacon, Falk improved the flavor of everything he was in. Although I am happy that his most famous work on the television series Columbo probably paid the bills, I worry that he was typecast and that kept him from playing more of the terrific, quirky characters he often played in the movies. Falk stands out playing smaller roles in big films like Pocketful of Miracles, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Great Race. He did groundbreaking work in his friend John Cassavetes’ cinéma-vérité experiments Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, and Mikey and Nicky. He’s a stitch in under-rated comedies like Murder By Death, The Brink’s Job, All The Marbles, and Tune in Tomorrow. Falk is iconic as The Grandfather in The Princess Bride. When the material and character are just right, as they are in The In-Laws, Falk turns in a performance for the ages. Vince Ricardo is a character we have never seen in another movie, and Falk keeps the audience guessing throughout the entire film: Is he a mobbed-up gangster, an international businessman, an undercover CIA operative, or an escaped mental patient?
Alan Arkin here has the less showy of the two roles—the straight man—and he instinctually understands what is required of that role. Arkin never steals focus from Falk (that would be difficult) but he realizes that his dazed reactions to Falk’s peculiar-ness ratchet up the comedy considerably. From the movie’s first scene in Kornpett’s dental office, Arkin is able to establish quickly and economically that his character is a nice guy. This is important to the movie ahead, because Arkin will play the part of the audience surrogate when things start to get weird.

Director Arthur Hiller is somewhat overlooked himself. Besides the massive hits Love Story and Silver Streak, Hiller served as president of the Director’s Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was known as an “actor’s director” who guided many actors to Oscar-nominated performances. He also directed small comedies like The Out-Of -Towners, Plaza Suite, The Hospital, Author! Author!, The Lonely Guy, and the film I have mentioned in many columns as being the closest Hollywood ever got to portraying my profession accurately, Teachers. In The In-Laws, Hiller showcases his actor-centric sensibility by ensuring that most, if not all, of the comedy derives from character—not from easy laughs or generic one-liners.
Andrew Bergman wrote The In-Laws fresh off the triumphant success of Blazing Saddles, which he co-wrote. Bergman would go on to write So Fine, The Freshman, and Soapdish, three comedies for which I feel tremendous affection. I have recently noticed that the four films share a similar architecture: in each, an ordinary “square” character (Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, Ryan O’Neal in So Fine, Matthew Broderick in The Freshman and Elizabeth Shue in Soapdish) have their lives turned upside-down and experience danger and excitement at the hands of a quirky hurricane of a character (Peter Falk, Richard Kiel and Mariangela Melato, Marlon Brando, and Sally Field, respectively). This similarity doesn’t bother me. Actually, it makes admire Bergman as a writer who 1) came up with a premise so trusty and entertaining; and 2) actually cared about comedic structure. These four films are little treasures, and you could do worse, babies, then to schedule an Andrew Berman “Schleppy Square’s Big Adventure” Marathon at your earliest convenience.
There is a remake of The In-Laws—it was released in 2003 and stars Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks, two actors I usually enjoy. How is it? Well, The In-Laws from 1979 is available as an out-of-print DVD from Amazon.com for the princely sum of $49.00. The In-Laws is also available as a “double feature DVD” with the 2003 remake—yep, you get both films—for $6.38. Kind of tells you all you need to know about the remake, right? Since you’re also getting the original, though, it’s quite a bargain.

3 comments:

  1. So glad someone is talking about this film! Peter Falk was a genius!

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  2. I finally caught this on TCM a couple of weeks ago, and it's just as great as you say.

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