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In-Laws, The (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 23 May 2003
The comedy "The In-Laws" opens with a shot of a submarine cruising by, submerged and mysterious. And that's the last real surprise in this routine movie. Once you realize the premise -- and it isn't exactly hidden -- you can predict every plot turn, every "surprise" twist, and even the dialog much of the time. It's a mechanical exercise, with complications (useful or otherwise) arriving exactly on schedule.

The movie is occasionally fairly funny, but just as often the humor falls flat. The screenplay by Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon, based on the 1979 movie of the same title (which starred Peter Falk and Alan Arkin) isn't as overtly comic as the original film, but also fails to present the bad guy as being authentically dangerous. This wipes out all possibilities of suspense in the last half hour. The first version was original and surprising; the new one is anything but.

Andrew Fleming directed without any flair at all; it's as flat as a TV sitcom, flavorless and colorless. And yet just because it features Michael Douglas in a rare comic role, and provides Albert Brooks with his largest role in years, this will get a lot of favorable reviews that it doesn't quite deserve.

Douglas is sunny and cheerful, a secret agent who gallivants around the world; Brooks is a pedantic, staid podiatrist who is dead-set against anything new. "The In-Laws" is one of those movies in which once it's made clear that a character has a fear of flying, you know he'll be in a plane very soon. It's Barbra Streisand's private jet, but nothing very interesting is made of that idea; the filmmakers seem to have thought that the statement of ownership was a sufficient joke in itself. It isn't.

After that submarine shot, the movie opens with Douglas, as CIA agent Steve Tobias, deep inside bad guy territory (the country isn't specified), who makes a flamboyant, extremely James Bond-like escape with the help of his gorgeous assistant Angela (Robin Tunney). Steve has to skip CIA business to attend the wedding of his somewhat estranged son Mark (Ryan Reynolds).

Mark's fiancee is Melissa Peyser (Lindsay Sloane), daughter of over-controlling Dr. Jerry Peyser (Brooks) and his wife Katherine (Maria Ricossa). Steve has failed to show up on several occasions, so Jerry is already inclined to mistrust him. It doesn't help when Steve takes them to a restaurant where the specialty is roast python, or when he gets into a fight with a spy in the men's room.
All at once, the uncomprehending Jerry is swept up into the plans of adept but blithe Steve -- though just why Steve hauls him along on all this isn't very clear. Steve flies Streisand's private jet to France, and whisks Jerry off to an encounter with arms dealer Thibodoux (Suchet). There's something about selling that submarine to Thibodoux, but the film treats its own plot as a throwaway detail. Thibodoux is a murderous crime boss, of course, but is treated as something of a joke -- he can't even hit the captive he fires at. And he develops an inexplicable attraction for Jerry, while maintaining that he isn't gay. That also seems to be a joke, but it's not very funny.

After money changes hands and stuff like that, Steve and Jerry wing back to Chicago (the movie was shot in Canada), and to the wedding, which becomes dismayingly complicated. Steve's brazen ex-wife Judy (Candice Bergen) shows up, sneering snarls at him. And Melissa's best friend Gloria (Emmy Laybourne, being funny for all she's worth, which alas isn't much) admits that several years ago she slept with Mark. Neither of these complications affect the movie at all; they're intrusive and wearisome.

There's a big climax at the lakeside wedding that somehow involves Thibodoux and the submarine. It's all presented as a very fast lark, but it's simply not all that funny. There's a still showing a smiling Douglas, with Brooks clinging behind him, zipping along on a jet ski that is more amusing and interesting than the sequence it comes from.

Douglas is just too breezy and light; when we learn he damaged his marriage and his relationship with his son by being such a globetrotter, it seems unnecessary, a detail just to show that Steve has a story arc. Brooks is just flotsam in Douglas' wake, swept along with only mild whines and kvetches, so he can, as Douglas keeps suggesting throughout, stop and smell the roses. (Which doesn't seem to match anything Douglas himself does.)

The dialog is functional, not especially inventive or witty; when it tries to be both, it sometimes strains for effect. Angela warns Steve that "We've got the FBI on us like trailer trash on Velveeta." Huh? Jerry wears a fanny pack, which is a source for much amusement by the characters on screen, but doesn't wow the audience.

"The In-Laws" is a handsome movie, shot in wide screen by Alexander Gruszynski, though Andrew McAlpine's production design rarely suggests Illinois or France. The song score is surprisingly inventive and wide-ranging, from Elvis' "It's Now or Never," to "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney, as well as ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" and Mel Torme's "Too Close for Comfort." The soundtrack album may well be worth buying.

At best, and at worst, "The In-Laws" is harmless summer entertainment; you won't feel cheated, but you might regret not just waiting for it on video.  

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