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The In-Laws
(1979)
 

Director: Arthur Hiller                              
Cast:
Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Richard Libertini


The In-Laws wasn't always an unknown movie. In fact, it was the 18th highest grossing movie of 1979 (back when even that ranking used to mean something.) But after just a few years, public knowledge of it quickly dwindled to its present status, where only a few people seem to know anything about it. Which is a mystery, because it's a very funny movie, with direction from someone who brought us memorable movies like The Hospital and Love Story, and the screenwriter (Andrew Bergman) gave us movies like Fletch and The Freshman. The only reason I can think of its undeserved status is the stars, Peter Falk and Alan Arkin - not that it's their fault. Let me be more specific; though Alan Arkin has appeared in several popular movies, he never quite became a big star in the public's eye. Peter Falk did get a lot of fame from playing Columbo, and has managed to work fairly steadily outside of that character, but the public still seems to only associate him as Columbo. So I suspect many potential viewers were turned off by this "bland" casting.

That's a shame, because this movie is a very satisfying comedy, fast paced and filled not only with a number of laughs, but laughs derived from different kinds of humor. It could be considered a smorgasbord of comedy. The key for this movie to work depends on its stars to keep pulling off the rapid comic delivery required of them, and the two stars of The In-Laws do this beautifully. Watching them in action, you'll see not just how funny they are, but how talented they are.

Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin) is a successful dentist in New York, and is overjoyed that his grown daughter is about to be married in just a few days. But he and his wife still haven't done one of the most important steps parents must do when a child gets married - meet the in-laws. That has been quite difficult for Sheldon to do, since their future son-in-law's father, Vince Ricardo (Falk), is frequently away, with the explanation he works in an "international consulting firm". Fortunately, Vince finally gets some time off work, and he and his wife come over to the Kornpetts for dinner. It isn't long into dinner, however, that Sheldon starts having second thoughts to his daughter marrying into this family. This comes from Vince's bizarre behavior at the table, which includes his telling of dangerous eagle sized and baby-snatching tsetse flies (with beaks) he encountered south of the border ("The enormous flies flapping slowly towards the sunset..."), and his crazy rant when his son makes a passing joke about his penchant for mysterious phone calls when he asks the Kornpetts if there's a private place where he can call his business.

After the Ricardos have left, Sheldon is dead set against his daughter marrying a man with such a wacko father, though she and his wife manage to somehow calm him down and relieve his fears, and convince him to try and be accepting of this oddball behavior. The next day, Vince drops into Sheldon's office, and asks him for a favor. See, there are these two... business competitors... hanging outside of his office, waiting for him to take out some of his documents out of his safe. Could Sheldon spare five minutes to go into the building so the documents could be taken out without the competition knowing about it? The request sounds a little odd, but Sheldon doesn't really see anything wrong it, and agrees to help Vince. Then...well, let's just say that Sheldon finds himself with Vince in a situation that's going to take a heck of a lot more than five minutes to resolve.

I'll say it again, it's the performances of Arkin and Falk that really makes this movie work; they are a fabulous comedy team. Arkin goes through a wide range of hilarious reactions, including reprising the numbed/stunned mumbling and managing to stay bland while shouting that he showed off in Fire Sale a couple of years earlier. He gets to show off a lot more here, hilariously pleading and blubbering when a situation gets to be too much, or screaming louder and louder as he learns more about an outrageous situation, such as the hilarious scene at the restaurant. (This scene might have possibly inspired the famous restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally, by the way.) He even manages to show off some talent in physical humor by performing a couple of stunts that are not only funny but clearly had some risk to them.

Falk is also very funny, though his comic performance is that of a more subtle kind of comedy. It's kind of a variation of his Lieutenant Columbo character, with him being equally dry and casual in his manner, though here he's a little quicker, more witty, and with a gleam in his eye. His constant explanations are done so patiently, so logically, that they are funny even if the particular piece of dialogue being spoken wasn't meant to be funny. So you can imagine how funny it is when he does have something absurd to say, such as suddenly bringing up the subject of sandwiches during a car chase. Falk also manages to bring life to asides that would fall flat with most actors, like "Sometimes I'm so smart, I scare myself!"

There are some even better lines and quick-or-you'll-miss-it asides that Falk's delivery sparkles, like "Damn Canadians! Never stop talking!" ("Believe me, I know what that's like.") The laughs in the movie aren't just limited one one-liners, though. There are sight gags, like the incredibly tacky art collection a general owns. There's physical comedy, like the scene where Paul Smith (in a guest appearance) can't shoot the dodging and frantic Sheldon just a few feet away, or the "Serpentine, Shelly!" sequence later. The movie also manages no small achievement with a car chase sequence. You probably know from movies like The Cannonball Run that car chases meant to be funny never are, and we wait forever for the darn unfunniness to be over. Incredibly, the comic car chase in this movie is not only funny, it manages to run for just the right amount of time.

Even in the greatest comedies, not every gag will work, and The In-Laws does have some flat gags, some which are so lame it's hard to believe Bergman also wrote the funny moments. The scene at the "Automatic Car Painting" garage seems to be right out of a lame 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and has the gag of finding animals in your Central American hotel room EVER been funny? The denouement, while amusing, feels kind of tacked on, as if the cast was called back to be hastily filmed it after an unsatisfying test screening. You don't really have to pay any attention to it, because this movie is one of those comedies where you don't have to think much, if anything at all, about the story, but you can just sit back, relax, and sponge up all the gags that fly out at you.

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See also: Fire Sale, I Wonder Who's Killing Her Now, Let It Ride

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