Review: The In-Laws

by Jake Sproul

Rating: (out of )

When someone decides to make a comedy, they will immediately run into a fork in the road. The path to the right is farce, physical and visceral humor, and of course, the ubiquitous bathroom humor. The path to the left leads to a more cerebral and dry wit. Neither path is wrong, and neither path is necessarily right. However, done incorrectly, the path chosen can lead to disaster. In the case of The In-Laws, neither path was chosen. The movie straddles the line of humor. Mixing in farce of wit can be equally as dangerous as it can be profitable. And the often hit-miss humor of The In-Laws in these two different comedic genres leaves a detestable taste in one’s mouth.

The In-Laws is a remake of a 1979 comedy of the same name, starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, and while I have never seen the original, I can assume that this updated version has done nothing but tarnish the name. And while we are on the subjects of “names,” I have to comment on the last minute name change of this film. For months, I was seeing the omnipresent trailer for The Wedding Party, and as you may have already guessed, The Wedding Party became the inferiorly and generically titled The In-Laws. I am sure the rationale was to pay homage to the original, and to make clear that this is a remake, but wouldn’t you rather see The Wedding Party than the unimaginative The In-Laws?

The “buddy comedy” formula, also known as the “odd couple” formula, has been in use for years. The In-Laws employs this formula with a spy genre twist. Steve Tobias is a spy, whose cover in Xerox salesman. Jerry Peyser is a podiatrist. These two men would probably never meet, yet Steve’s son Mark and Jerry’s daughter Melissa have fallen in love and are to be engaged. In grand comedic style, when Jerry and Steve finally meet, the cake hits the fan (also the movie’s tagline). Steve and Jerry become wanted by the FBI, and are on the run, all the while, their wedding of their offspring is only days away.

The interactions between the two stars - in this care Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks - is what makes a film like this work. Someone obviously forgot to tell director Andrew Fleming this, as he stages over-scripted events and overly elaborate comic sequences, which drown any attempts at deadpan humor from Brooks. Its not the outrageous scenarios that the main characters get themselves into that are necessary to make the movie, its the Douglas/Brooks rapport, and Fleming reversed the importance in the plot of the two.

As I mentioned, the FBI are chasing Steve and Jerry on their adventures. This immediately creates a problem in chain of thought. If the FBI are good guys, and Steve is a good guy, why are they chasing him? The In-Laws takes the audience on a tiresome mystery throughout the entire movie to determine if Steve is really an undercover CIA agent with his cover blown, or a bad guy working against the USA. Not only unnecessary, this plot twist is boring and distracting. On top of this, the FBI is presented as cartoons and buffoons. Without a doubt, it was this addition of the FBI and Steve’s motives into the film that turned it from an acceptable lark to disappointing.

Accompanying an event in a movie with a completely different song choice creates comedic surrealism. The use of music in The In-Laws in this capacity and in general is exquisite. While a James Bond-type espionage sequence with a French smuggler never quite works for me, use of “Live and Let Die” during an opening car chase scene is inspired. Yet, my choice for perfect companion composition would have to go to “Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head,” and I will let your imagination ponder in what capacity this piece was used.

Michael Douglas must be living under the impression that he is 30 years old. After marrying (now) Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, he had two children with her, and he is now featured here as a spy. All at the age of 58, on the brink of becoming a sexagenarian. Technically, there is nothing wrong with his performance, but I couldn’t help but scoff upon observing some of the aerobatic skills demonstrated by the act - er - Douglas’ stunt double. Candice Bergen pops in for some punch-lines late in the film, as Steve’s ex-wife, which in the end hurts the film more than it helps. As hinted, Albert Brooks is good with the material given to him, one only wishes he would have had more than a plethora of fanny-pack gags. Sure, Brooks gets in a few great punch-lines (one regarding Homeland Security is exceptionally hilarious), but its not enough to sustain an entire film.

While the movie isn’t a total disaster, with some bright spots now and again, I just cannot advocate The In-Laws. Heavy-handed directing turns what should have been a relationship-driven movie between Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks into a silly plot-driven affair, full of trivial plot twists, and Carl Winslow-esque police officers.

Movie reviews are like tornado warnings: they don’t do much good after the fact. That is why I see every sneak preview I can, in the hope’s of giving you a warning or in some cases, encouragement as to seeing a movie before it goes wide. In the case of this movie, I recommend you seek shelter as far away from a theatre play The In-Laws as possible.

© 2003 Jacob Sproul

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