| Although it was a critical and commercial hit in the summer of 1979 and is still beloved by the fans who watched it over and over again on cable television and videocassette in the early 1980s, Arthur Hiller’s madcap farce The In-Laws has become something of a forgotten movie (despite an inferior 2003 remake with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks), and the time is ripe for its rediscovery. A feat of casting genius, it paired Peter Falk, then best known as TV’s favorite unkempt homicide detective Columbo, as a shifty, possibly disgraced CIA agent and Alan Arkin, who hadn’t had a hit movie in almost a decade, as an uptight Manhattan dentist. They play soon-to-be-in-laws who get caught up in a ridiculous scheme involving stolen plates from the U.S. Mint and a fictional banana republic far south of the border run by a comical dictator played with delirious lunacy by versatile character actor Richard Libertini (Catch-22, Fletch).|
Hiller, working from a script by Andrew Bergman (Blazing Saddles), plays with various tones, starting the film like a straight-up crime thriller and then slowly easing into the comedy, with the first highlight being a dinner sequence in which Arkin’s Sheldon Kornpett first meets Falk’s Vincent Ricardo, who arrives more than an hour late and then regales the table with straight-faced stories about his time abroad witnessing giant, beaked tsetse flies stealing young children (“Beaks? Flies with beaks?” Arkin says in a way that hilariously conveys absolute incredulity barely masked by polite decorum). It’s a perfectly pitched sequence that paves the way for Sheldon and Vincent’s eventual relationship, which hinges primarily on Sheldon being incensed at Vincent’s behavior while Vincent coolly tries to defuse his anger with various non-sequiturs and absurdist diversions and explanations. Arkin, whose voice has been described as an exasperated monotone, is an invaluable foil for Falk, who manages to say and do things that are absolutely outrageous without breaking a sweat. The key to the film’s comedy is the play between Sheldon’s increasing mania (which at times sends him into brief fits of catatonia) and Falk’s casual insouciance, even as bullets are flying all around them and tires are squealing.
The plot gets off and running once Vincent arrives unannounced at Sheldon’s office and talks him into putting his patients on hold for “five minutes” so he can accompany him back to his office and retrieve something from his safe. That something turns out to be the stolen plates, and Sheldon soon finds himself running through the streets of New York with gangsters firing at him while Vincent chats it up with an wide-eyed cabbie (David Paymer) in a diner. Vincent confides in Sheldon that he is an agent with the CIA, although the veracity of that statement is soon called in question when one of Vincent’s superiors (Ed Begley, Jr.) informs Sheldon that he is actually a mental case who was tossed out of the agency the previous year. Vincent admits that he is operating on his own and that his stealing the plates is part of a larger plan to trap and arrest General Garcia (Libertini), a South American dictator who plans to use the plates to upend the world’s economy (don’t ask—the plan genuinely doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to because it is just a Hitchockian Macguffin designed to justify all the action and comedy). While the wedding date of their two children draws near, Vincent and Sheldon head south of the border (in a plane manned by two Chinese pilots who only speak Cantonese, one of whom is played by James Hong) to fulfill Vincent’s absurdist plan.
Although he was best known at the time for helming the hugely popular tearjerker Love Story (1970), Hiller was no stranger to comedy, having directed the Neil Simon-penned The Out of Towners (1970) starring Jack Lemon and Sandy Dennis and Silver Streak (1976), which was the first of four crime comedies to pair Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in the starring roles (Hiller would go on to direct them again in 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil). While he is not known as a particularly inventive director, Hiller knew actors and he knew to let Falk and Arkin do their thing with as little interference as possible, which is why so many of their scenes play out in long takes that privilege their performances over visual imagination.
The cinematographer, David M. Walsh, who collaborated with Hiller on numerous projects over the years, specialized in films that played as well on the small screen as they did on the big screen; his filmography reads like a greatest hits of compulsively watchable ’70s and ’80s comedies, including Silver Streak (1976), The Goodbye Girl (1977), Seems Like Old Times (1980), Private Benjamin (1980), and Summer School (1988). A great deal of the comedy in The In-Laws comes from the dialogue and the interpersonal play between Arkin and Falk, but there are also some great moments of physical humor as well, including the legendary “Serpentine!” sequence in which they improbably find themselves in the middle of an airstrip trying to avoid being shot by multiple snipers by running in a zig-zag patterns. It is little surprise, then, that Hiller, according to his memoir, is approached more about this movie than any of his others, proving that it is that special kind of comedy that just gets better and better each time you watch it.
Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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