In a business where most of the product that is spewed out each week is really pretty awful, where executives don't seem to have a clue about what their customers want, and where the term "remake" or "sequel" has become an everyday occurrence, it's nice to see that someone has gotten something right.
Although I generally have nothing positive to say about good films being remade years later, I have no problem when a not-so-good film is tried once again, with hopes of making it better. When The In-Laws was released in 1979, most critics gave it high grades, and a lot of people saw it and loved it. It came in at the low end of the top 20 money-making films that year.
When I finally caught up with it some months later, I didn't -- and still don't -- get what all the hubbub was about. Alan Arkin and Peter Falk starred as two soon-to-be fathers-in-law who were miles apart in careers, temperament, attitudes and much more. But the film, reported by so many to be a comic masterpiece, was forced, nonsensical and simply unfunny. When I heard a remake was coming, my plan was to skip it.
Happily, I didn't. This time, with the story remaining close to the original's, the fathers are played by Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas. No one familiar with Brooks' work needs to be convinced that he's completely at home with over-the-top comedy. His part here, as a low-key podiatrist (the character was a dentist in the original) is his best role since he directed himself in Mother. Moreover, not enough credit has been given to Douglas for his comedy work. While he's best known for films such as Traffic, Falling Down and Wall Street, he's been right on the mark in lighter fair like Romancing the Stone and The American President. Starring this time as an action-loving CIA agent opposite the meek Brooks character, Douglas goes the scenery-chewing route and scores big.
But it's not just the two lead actors who shoot this film far past the supposed heights the first one reached. The situations are still silly -- Douglas' Steve enlists Brooks' Jerry on an international adventure he'll never forget, all while both men must keep the impending wedding of their kids way up on their to-do lists. But the dialogue here is snappier, funnier. And Andrew Fleming's (Dick, The Craft) direction, while veering off into sentimentality a couple too many times, and possibly missing a few good comedic opportunities with Candace Bergen as the bitchy ex-wife of Douglas, is much sharper and reined in than that of Arthur Hiller's in the original.
Yet it is the two leads that hold the film together -- Douglas all cool and calm, with Brooks coming across as a nervous Nellie. They are definite opposites from the moment they meet. And soon after, when Jerry sees Steve (about whom he knows nothing) beat the hell out of an agent on "the other side," Jerry realizes that the new person coming into his family is going to be a problem. That's unfortunate for him, but quite fortunate for viewers who like to laugh, because Brooks quickly adds a broadly comic nervous paranoia to his character, then builds it up for the rest of the film.
He's actually at his best -- with one-liners and body language -- in some riotous scenes opposite David Suchet (who played the title role in a series of Hercule Poirot TV movies) as the fearsome international criminal Jean-Pierre. This Belgian bad guy, with no explanation, develops the hots for Jerry, who from then on is referred to as "Fat Cobra."
The story ends up going in many different directions. There's a side-plot about a stolen nuclear submarine, a whole other story about FBI agents constantly tailing Steve and constantly being foiled by him (with more good body humor by A. Russell Andrews as Detective Hutchins), and a couple of hilarious stabs at Barbra Streisand via a piece of recorded music and a look inside a makeup drawer.
The film gets bogged down in a misstep involving some out-of-place family issues, but that all goes away within minutes. Oh, and there's a sequence near the end that makes no sense. But when the comic timing is on -- and it mostly is -- any and all negative points are easily forgotten.
Watching Brooks and Douglas work together, especially in scenes where they're involuntarily hugging each other, is a marvel to behold. Of course, there are fans of the original who will say, without even seeing it, that this film wasn't necessary. That's their loss. For those who haven't seen the first one, now there's a reason not to bother.
Publication date: 05/22/03