#50 — The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller, 1979)
In half-watching a recent horror film the other night, I got into a discussion about the ways the story in question ticked off a multitude of basic, commonly shared fears. That’s what good horror films do, after all–this was a pretty good one for the first two-third or so–and it got me thinking about the ways that great comedies often tap the same well. Maybe comedy is tragedy plus time, but it’s also our gravest worries taken to absurd extremes. Surely every parent has a bit of neuroses that their child may someday marry into a family populated by problematic people, thereby expanding the tree with some ugly, rotting branches. It’s one thing if a darling daughter picks up a new father-in-law who’s unpleasant, and quite other if he turns out to be an unhinged loon with a background in inscrutable international intrigue. Tsetse flies the size of eagles that pick children off the ground and carry them away? Now I’m scared.
Arthur Hiller’s comedy may not have the groundbreaking, genre-upending cachet of other offerings from the vaunted decade of film, but it is consistently, hysterically funny. The movie is like a great old record album; no matter where the needle is dropped, there’s something wonderful there. In perfectly conceived casting, Alan Arkin and Peter Falk star as the fathers who are both about to see their children down the aisle. Arkin is Sheldon Kornpett, a put-upon New York dentist who surveys his mundane world with a healthy dose of wry skepticism. Falk plays his total opposite, Vincent Ricardo, a bedraggled CIA agent with an unflappable seen-it-all demeanor that still allows him to generously marvel at every odd new thing that comes his way. Watching him sit a bar and try to puzzle out The Price is Right is its own splendid joy. When Sheldon inadvertently gets drawn into one of Vincent’s tricky cases, it sets both men dodging bullets together on both the Manhattan streets and on distant, dusty foreign soil.
This was Andrew Bergman’s first produced solo screenplay after working on Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles several years earlier, though it unfolds with the sort of precise character-driven shifts that usually come from a seasoned pro. Director Arthur Hiller keeps the tone incredulously joyful and the pacing brisk, largely (and wisely) making his best effort to cede the frame to his two lead actors, who spark off of each other like the great comedy teams of old. Falk is especially strong, playfully trading in on his damn near every persona someone might associate with him: the deceptively ingenious detective of Columbo, the guy with an aura of veiled danger about him from any of his collaborations with John Cassavetes, the whiskery satirist of classic movie hardboiled heroes in Neil Simon comedies Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective. Falk didn’t exactly disappear into his roles, but he did have a marvelous ability to play every character differently in deft, subtle ways. He always managed to suggest that the inner wheels were turning in a different way.
I loved The In-Laws when I saw it way back when, but it’s one of those movies that’s also never disappointed me over the years. I’ve always revisited it rather gingerly, worried that my youthful propensity for anything funny might have deluded me. Instead, it’s richer and more engaging each time I watch it. And “Serpentine!” is always funny.