Film of the Week: Updated 'The In-Laws'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  May 22, 2003 at 10:22 AM
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LOS ANGELES, May 22 (UPI) -- Michael Douglas replaces Peter Falk and Albert Brooks takes over for Alan Arkin in "The In-Laws," a loose remake of the 1979 semi-classic comedy.

The first hour is one of the most consistently funny so far in 2003, although that's not saying too much during this fallow year for screen comedies. It doesn't deliver many huge laughs, but the chuckles come almost as fast as in a quality TV sit-com (not that there are as many of those as there were five years ago, either). The yuks aren't terribly novel or insightful, but quantity can be a form of quality.

Sadly, the new film abruptly runs out of jokes with a half-hour to go. In contrast, the original built slowly to some memorable comic climaxes.

If you want to sell your screenplay, it's smart to frontload your best material like this, since busy studio executives can hardly be expected to read scripts all the way through. Audiences, however, tend to judge movies more by how they feel as they walk out of the theatre, so this bodes poorly for the latest version's word-of-mouth.

Surprisingly, you can watch the two films back-to-back without getting bored because the renditions share almost nothing besides their general set-up. Arkin/Brooks is a medical professional whose daughter is marrying the son of Falk/Douglas, who is either a top American secret agent or a con man or both. The extroverted spy lures the staid doctor into a crazed espionage adventure that threatens the big wedding.

It's really more of a spy spoof, but it's being advertised as a bridal flick because Americans love comedies with "wedding" in the title. Our culture has become so casual that nuptials provide one of the few remaining formal occasions that can make indignities and embarrassments so much funnier.

The new screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon chose to use almost no jokes from the original script by the distinguished funnyman Andrew Bergman (of "Blazing Saddles," "Fletch," and "The Freshman" fame). Bergman's script was so finely tuned to the personas of the lovable Falk and the volatile Arkin that almost none of the bits of business were transferable to the alpha male Douglas and the neurotic Brooks.

"In-Laws" cultists can still crack each other up with just the three words Falk shouts at Arkin: "Serpentine, Shelly, serpentine!" But I couldn't explain why that's so funny in less time than it would take you to watch the movie. The best comedy defies summarization because the humor builds upon on all that went before.

Bergman wrote the spy role as an honesty-challenged variation on Falk's famous Lt. Columbo, the bumbling but resourceful everyman. In contrast, Michael Douglas radiates privilege and success, so Mauldin and Solomon made his character a super-competent CIA operative who enjoys his job as much as Donald Trump loves his. He's not as intriguing as Falk's character, but he fits Douglas better.

The other role wasn't fleshed out much beyond a blunt-spoken masculinity made mildly famous by Arkin's perfect comic timing, but Albert Brooks gave the 2003 writers a richer, quirkier target.

Brooks (whose real name is, and I'm not making this up, "Albert Einstein") has enjoyed a long career as a comic, actor, writer, and director, with 1991's "Defending Your Life" being perhaps the highlight. He might well have become a huge star if Woody Allen hadn't beaten him to the Jewish worrywart persona. What's distinctive about Brooks' shtick is his patented slow burn, but that would have worked better in the more deliberately paced 1979 movie.

Together, Douglas and Brooks generate decent screen chemistry, although they aren't in the class of their predecessors.

Other differences between the 1979 and 2003 films illustrate changes in American culture.

For example, the spy now has a beautiful young sidekick so we can watch her beat up the other characters. Back in 1979, few imagined that scenes of pretty girls hurting people would ever appeal to more than a limited (indeed, fetishistic) audience, but they now seem to be an indispensable part of summer multiplex movies.

The bad guy in the first movie was General Garcia, the lunatic dictator of a banana republic. These days, fortunately, there aren't that many old-line generalissimos left in power. Plus, the only thing the new Hollywood dreads more than being insensitive to Hispanics is starring them in movies. (Witness the striking lack of Latinos in the otherwise super-multiethnic "Matrix Reloaded"). So, the updated villain is a crime boss from -- you guessed it -- the one nation we're perfectly free to laugh at nowadays: France.

Arkin played a rich dentist, but Brooks is a podiatrist, perhaps because there aren't many wealthy dentists left. By selflessly promoting fluoride toothpaste, America's dentists have greatly reduced the number of cavities that provided their economic bread and butter. A noble endeavor.

Rated PG-13 for suggestive humor, language, some drug references and action violence.

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