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.
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?
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.
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.