Ricky Young looks at a wonderful slice of not-very-much, driven entirely by the charisma of its two leads.
Not many people really know about 1979’s The In-Laws, but those who do like it a lot. And for a bunch of damn good reasons.
It doesn’t have much of a reason to exist, however, given that it only happened due to fading 70s star Alan Arkin using what clout he had left to work with Peter Falk, for the simple reason that Arkin thought he might enjoy it. Asking Blazing Saddles writer Andrew Bergman for a script, any script, and engaging journeyman director Arthur Hiller to oversee, the breezy way it came about translates into the freewheeling atmosphere of the film, which begins relatively sedately and quietly spirals into something quite, quite mad.
Arkin plays staid and respectable Dr. Sheldon “Shelly” Kornpett, dentist to well-to-do Manhattanites and father to Barbara, who is shortly due to marry a lunkhead named Tommy Ricardo. Tommy’s father, whom the family hasn’t yet met, finally comes to dinner shortly before the nuptials, and leaves quite an impression.
We first meet Peter Falk’s Vince Ricardo in the opening scene of the film, however, masterminding the theft of money-printing plates from the US Government. If your only real impression of Falk is as laconic crime-thwarter Columbo, you’re in for a treat – Ricardo is an extraordinary performance; the gruff, complex-sounding but disarmingly precise delivery we associate with tying Robert Culp in knots for murdering yet another wife is perfectly suited to a hilarious bullshitter, and as he sits at the dinner-table regaling his son’s parents-in-law with a story about enormous Guatemalan flies carrying children off from their homes, it’s clear that this new family-member might be, well, trouble. Shelly, for one, isn’t impressed.
Vince, for his part, recognises something usable in Sheldon, and the next day inveigles his way into the dental practice, to enrol the latter in a very different kind of extraction than he’s used to. It’s difficult to recount much more of what happens after that, not because I’m bothered about spoiling you, but the way Vince gradually pushes Sheldon’s life off the rails needs to be seen to be appreciated. Is Vince a con-artist, a criminal, or the CIA operative he claims to be? Car-chases, shoot-outs and desperate flights to Honduran islands pile up pretty quickly (Hiller and Bergman’s great achievement is that things get full-on balls-out crazy without you even noticing), and Sheldon’s previously firm grasp on sanity is the only real victim in the subsequent antics – apart from the people who get killed, of course.
It’s not much of a story, truth be told, and the comedy verges on goofiness in a couple of unnerving places, but the chemistry between Arkin and Falk provides enough crackling Bialystock-and-Bloom energy to fill the entire running-time, whether eating split-pea soup in a deli (“Put a few saltines in there, takes the greasiness away”), trying not to get their heads sniped off (“Serpentine, Shelly! SERPENTINE!), or convincing a firing-squad that they’re not doing their jobs properly. (“You know, we’re meant to get cigarettes”)
Irascible schemer paired with hapless schmuck is a comedy standard, but it’s rarely done with such conviction, and it’s not surprising The In-Laws has a reputation as a minor classic. (Will Ferrell in particular has spent his career trying to reproduce Arkin’s anguished flailing and just not getting it right.) The smaller turns are cracking too – Richard Libertini’s insane army general out-Andy Kaufman-ing Andy Kaufman, James Hong with a 90-second sequence of such comic perfection that I’m not embarrassed to use the phrase ‘of such comic perfection’, and Ed Begley Jr, who as always provides the ever-present wonder of how a man with such a stupendously strange upper lip managed to get into movies.
And while Bergman’s story nearly collapses under the weight of its absurdity – and really, it should – thanks to Falk and Arkin and Hiller it never quite does. Perhaps that’s why it’s so well-regarded – four low-key but powerful talents doing what they do extremely well, just seemingly because they could, and they wanted to.
What with it being a Criterion release, the 2k digital restoration means the 70s have never looked crisper, and there’s a bunch of other goodies with it – a commentary from 2003 with Falk, Arkin, Bergman and Hiller, some worthwhile chats with the other cast, and new interview with Arkin, amongst other things. It’s a solid purchase, and while nobody wants the in-laws in their house for that long, this should be an exception to the rule.
The In-Laws is reissued on blu-ray by Criterion today.