Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 22, 2003
The In-Laws\r\nStarring Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks. Directed by Andrew Fleming. Written by Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon, based on Andrew Bergman’s screenplay. Rated PG-13.\r\n
Spy Dads

A phobic foot doctor and \r\na CIA agent rule an engaging remake of The In-Laws.


If Andrew Fleming isn’t the most under-appreciated filmmaker in Hollywood, I don’t know who is. He first showed up on the radar in 1996 with his teen-witch drama The Craft, a dark and knowing, if overheated, work masquerading as a schlock-horror flick cast with cute chicks. He outdid himself splendidly three years later with his delightful comedy Dick (about two silly teen-age girls who stumble into the Watergate hotel during the 1972 break-in and wind up bringing down President Nixon), but its off-kilter premise unfortunately prevented the movie from finding an audience. He then created an uneven but highly inventive and thus short-lived tv comedy series called Grosse Pointe. Somehow, without a big hit to his name, someone gave him a job directing a high-profile summer movie, The In-Laws, and while the resulting comedy doesn’t soar to glorious heights, it floats gently toward the sky.

It’s a remake of Arthur Hiller’s 1979 comedy of the same name, which starred Alan Arkin as a boring New York City dentist who discovers that his new in-law is a maverick CIA agent played by Peter Falk. The remake moves the setting to Chicago and changes all the characters’ names. Michael Douglas plays Agent Steve Tobias and brings a professional smoothness to the role in place of Falk’s folksiness. Another movie critic once said that easy-going charm isn’t Douglas’ forte as an actor, and that’s true enough. In this film, however, he plays Steve as a guy who aims for easygoing charm in social situations and misses. Meeting his prospective in-laws for the first time, he tries to win them over by doing lame magic tricks and saying things like, “Whoever’s tardy pays for the party!” Douglas’ back-slapping turn results in his funniest performance since Wonder Boys.

Meanwhile, Arkin’s levelheaded dentist has been changed into Jerry Peyser, a podiatrist played by Albert Brooks. The main effect of this is that the character becomes a lot more like Albert Brooks — grouchy, punctilious, and neurotic enough to carry around a fanny pack containing a cell phone, a pager, a collapsible drinking cup, and Lorna Doones (“... in case I get hungry”). Jerry’s impressive array of phobias quickly kicks into high gear, as he’s pulled into Steve’s attempts to bust an international black-market arms deal. He finds himself dodging bullets, flying in airplanes very much against his will, and warding off the romantic advances of a bisexual French criminal overlord (David Suchet).

This is Fleming’s first film on which he receives no writing credit. Screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon deserve credit for doing more than simply recycling the old story and expecting the new actors to make it fresh. Nevertheless, their work fits comfortably into Hollywood conventions and could easily make for dull viewing in the hands of another filmmaker. Fleming, though, is a director who has spent his career managing tricky material, and he always knows exactly which tone to strike. Here, the two main characters bond with each other over the fact that their kids are now grown, and Fleming gives their relationship some weight without milking it for pathos (nothing better than pathos for taking the air out of a comedy). He’s truly at home dealing with teen-age girls, but he’s not too shabby with middle-aged guys, either.

It’s also good that the filmmakers create new characters and give them rewarding comic business to take some of the focus off the two leads. The kids are portrayed by Ryan Reynolds and Grosse Pointe star Lindsay Sloane, both funny performers who look like caricatures of good-looking people. The Craft star Robin Tunney, who’s always a welcome sight, plays Steve’s comely partner with a cool demeanor to match that of Douglas’. As Steve’s extremely bitter ex-wife, Candice Bergen gets a predictable bit in an elevator that nevertheless raises a good-sized laugh.

It comes out a wash; the original movie was a light, engaging comedy, and so is the remake. I can’t help but think that if Hollywood were a better place, a solid if not overly distinguished piece of entertainment like The In-Laws would be an average affair in terms of product quality. The truth, though, is that most comedies put out by the major studios aren’t as intelligent, well-crafted, well-cast, or funny as this modest treat. It’s sad that hype and star power can sell crap like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Bringing Down the House while more enjoyable and innovative fluff like Down With Love goes begging. The In-Laws will probably get crushed at the box office this week by the Jim Carrey-as-God comedy Bruce Almighty, thus continuing Andrew Fleming’s bad luck. Hollywood’s comedies won’t get any funnier until movie-goers start recognizing better stuff and buying tickets to it.

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