Director: Arthur Hiller
Screenplay: Andrew Bergman
Starring: Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Richard Libertini, Ed Begley Jr., James Hong, David Paymer
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
This was a blind watch for me. I didn’t know anything about the film before the press release was sent. I’d heard of, but not seen, the remake and didn’t realise that was based on another film film anyway. Criterion can generally be trusted to release quality titles though and the cast was appealing, so I took a gamble which I’m happy to say paid off.
The In-Laws is a comedy about two father-in-laws to be; uptight Jewish dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin) and crazy Italian American criminal/government agent Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk). The film opens with a daring open air robbery of some federal reserve plates (stamps used to print money), which soon make their way into the hands of heist mastermind Vince, who rushes straight from the scene to have dinner with the parents of his son’s fiancée. Here, Vince’s wild mood changes and crazy stories about giant, baby-carrying flies don’t impress potential in-law Sheldon, who wants to call the wedding off. His daughter talks him out of it, but the next morning Vince shows up at Sheldon’s surgery asking for a favour. He wants him to break into his own safe and bring him the contents. Sheldon is somehow talked into it and from then on his life is thrown into a ridiculous spiral of chaos, taking the duo all the way to South America where Vince plans to sell the plates to a crazed general. Vince claims he’s a CIA agent and this is all part of an elaborate plan to bring the general down, but Sheldon (and the audience) aren’t convinced.
I enjoyed this madcap farce on first viewing, but I was originally going to award this a slightly lower rating than I have. I found it funny, but not quite as much as I thought I should have. However, I was extremely tired when I watched it and was struggling to keep my eyes open at times, so didn’t feel I was quite in the right mood. After watching the special features when I was more awake, including the audio commentary over the entire film, I found myself remembering and appreciating more of the wealth of comic delights on offer though, so I knocked my star rating up a notch.
Odd-couple type of comedies like this are made or broken by the central performances and this is most certainly the former. Taking two actors primarily known (certainly at the time) for their dramatic roles and putting them in ridiculous comic situations works a treat. Both play it straight, with Arkin perfectly capturing the highly strung dentist and pulling off the difficult task of making it believable that he’d be drawn into these situations. Falk’s job, which he does with ease, is to be as charismatic as possible, making even his wildest stories seem plausible. It’s a genuine pleasure to see them play off each other and they’re joined by a number of great character actors, such as Ed Begley Jr., James Hong and David Paymer. Best of all though is Richard Libertini as General Garcia. His ‘little friend’ gag could easily have felt like a step too far in the wrong hands, but instead had me in stitches.
The script has also got a lot to do with the film’s success though. The plot is mad as a bag of squirrels and was clearly, as writer Andrew Bergman professes in the features, made up as he went along. However, plot isn’t important, as a screwball comedy like this is all about the dialogue. This is another aspect I didn’t fully appreciate on first viewing. I laughed at the bigger gags (“serpentine, serpentine!” had me laughing out loud despite sitting on my own watching it), but I missed some of the brilliant seemingly throwaway lines that were highlighted in the features. For instance, (after a high speed cab ride) Sheldon: “Did we hit the little boy on Sixth Avenue?” Vince: “No, we missed him by a good foot and a half.”
The character development might be a bit slight (Arkin seems to just turnaround at the end and Falk barely changes at all throughout – although our perception of him does), but this seems irrelevant when the film is so much fun to watch. Aided by a wonderful central pairing and some amusingly irreverent dialogue, it’s an unusual, zany adventure with an enjoyable madcap energy to it. I’d recommend watching it when you’re fully awake though or you might not realise how good it really is.
The In-Laws is released on Blu-Ray on 15th August in the UK by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is fantastic, as is to be expected from Criterion, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio and providing a print which is clean but natural-looking.
You get a handful of great special features too. Here’s the list:
– Audio commentary from 2003 featuring director Arthur Hiller, actors Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, and writer Andrew Bergman
– New interview with Arkin
– In Support of “The In-Laws,” a new interview program featuring actors Ed Begley Jr., Nancy Dussault, James Hong, and David Paymer
– A booklet featuring an essay on the film
The interviews are a bit self-congratulatory, but the fondness for the project of those involved seems genuine and they’re full of fun anecdotes. Also loaded with similar stories, the commentary is fantastic. The group play well off each other and, again, their love of and enjoyment in making the film is apparent and infectious.