Thursday, January 12, 2012

The In-Laws (1979)

          One of the most beloved comedies of the late ’70s, The In-Laws is a study in controlled lunacy. Working from an immaculate screenplay by Andrew Bergman, who previously wrote the script that became Blazing Saddles (1974), director Arthur Hiller orchestrates a beautiful slow burn as the movie’s central gag gets taken to more and more absurd extremes. However, what really plops The In-Laws into the comedy sweet spot is the interaction between stars Alan Arkin and Peter Falk; while their everyman-vs.-lunatic dynamic is nothing new, both actors pitch their performances perfectly. So, while The In-Laws is too silly and slight to qualify as a classic, it’s completely enjoyable. In fact, many fans rank it among the funniest movies ever made—and when the movie’s really cooking, especially during a laugh-filled excursion from New Jersey to South America, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.
          The story begins when motor-mouthed weirdo Vincent J. Ricardo (Falk) enters the life of uptight New York dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin), because Vincent’s son is about to marry Sheldon’s daughter. On their first meeting, a dinner at Sheldon’s house, Vincent comes across as a loon prone to mood swings and outrageous lies; his story about seeing tsetse flies large enough to pluck children off the ground suggests Vincent’s not quite firing on all cylinders. Thanks to a few wild plot twists, Vincent shanghais Sheldon into a scheme involving stolen U.S. Mint engraving plates, a covert CIA operation (which may not be a real CIA operation), an illicit deal with an insane South American general, and a cheerfully bizarre plane ride on Wong Airlines.
          What makes The In-Laws so fun is the way Sheldon’s blind terror at being shot at complements Vincent’s easygoing attitude toward international intrigue—even in the most dangerous situations, like a crazed backwards car chase, Vincent pauses to compliment Shelton for keeping his cool, even though Sheldon’s perpetually on the verge of an aneurysm. Arkin is wonderful here, adding welcome vulnerability to his sometimes-chilly screen persona, and Falk is a riot. Time and again, Falk scores with deadpan readings of Bergman’s fine-tuned zingers. For instance, it’s hard to envision anyone but Falk selling the bit in which Vincent explains the benefit program available to covert agents, adding, “The trick is staying alive—that’s really the key to the benefit program.”
          The scheme that drives the movie’s story is a wafer-thin contrivance, the extended sequence with comedy pro Richard Libertini as the nutty general gets a little too goofy, and ace supporting players like Ed Begley Jr., Nancy Dussault, and James Hong are underused, but these are minor quibbles, since the best moments in The In-Laws are priceless.

The In-Laws: GROOVY

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