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The In-Laws

Agency spooks tell the funniest jokes: Podiatrist Jerry Peyser (Albert Brooks) laughs at something madcap CIA agent Steve Tobias (the ageless Michael Douglas) must have said.

Agency spooks tell the funniest jokes: Podiatrist Jerry Peyser (Albert Brooks) laughs at something madcap CIA agent Steve Tobias (the ageless Michael Douglas) must have said.

Rated 2.0

The new movie The In-Laws, starring Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks, purports to be a remake of the 1979 movie with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, but beyond the title and the credit to Andrew Bergman for the original film’s screenplay, any connection between the two is slight. In fact, considering the way flirting around the outskirts of plagiarism has been standard operating procedure in Hollywood for most of the last 90 years, I wonder why director Andrew Fleming, writers Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon and their six producers even bothered to nod in Andrew Bergman’s direction. Were they that crazy about the title?

The original The In-Laws was the ideal candidate for a remake: It had its moments, but anyone setting out to do it again would hardly be treading on hallowed ground. Bergman’s script was a variation on the fable of the city mouse and the country mouse, but with a difference: It was a fable of two different kinds of city mice, the kind who seem to meet up only in movie farces. Alan Arkin’s Sheldon Kornpett was the prim bourgeois paragon, the stolid suburbanite for whom rebellion would be to enter the crosswalk after “Don’t Walk” has started to blink; he was so strait-laced it sounded impertinent when his own wife called him “Shelly.” Peter Falk’s Vince Ricardo was as far from Sheldon as you could get: a rumpled, seedy-looking street hustler who looked like he should be selling transistor radios and Cuisinarts out of the trunk of his Pinto. Thrown into Vince’s orbit by the impending marriage of his own daughter to Vince’s son, Sheldon is yanked off into a serpentine plot of international intrigue in a South American banana republic. The film was directed by Arthur Hiller in his usual flaccid, graceless manner, but it had Arkin and Falk, and Bergman had a way of pulling sassy surprises out of the bag—like Falk’s bizarre monologue about huge tsetse flies swooping down and stealing unguarded children, or Richard Libertini as the dictator with a Señor Wences fixation and a collection of velvet paintings.

In the new version, Andrew Fleming’s direction is sprightlier and more energetic than Hiller’s—almost anyone’s would be—and it’s tempting to speculate on what he might have done with Bergman’s script. But Mauldin and Solomon’s rewrite homogenizes Bergman’s story, giving Fleming little to chew on. The first thing to go is any sense of ethnicity; Vince Ricardo becomes Steve Tobias (Douglas), and Sheldon Kornpett is now Jerry Peyser (Brooks)—still ostensibly Jewish, but with more than a slice of Wonder Bread, and prissy where Sheldon Kornpett was prim.

Mauldin and Solomon’s ideas of comedy are flat-footed and dopey. They change the Arkin/Brooks character from a dentist to a podiatrist; this is funny? Also, in what seems to be a bizarre homage, the bride’s family name is changed to that of the actress who played the bride in the original (Penny Peyser). Did somebody really snicker at the thought? The wacky banana-republic dictator becomes an international arms dealer (David Suchet) with a rather pathetic crush on Dr. Peyser. Another one of Mauldin and Solomon’s dimwit touches is a string of what can only be called fag jokes, leading up to a disgraceful guffaw about prison rape. (Why is prison rape the only kind of rape that is still considered funny? Is it because it’s homosexual in nature or because it happens between convicts?)

Douglas and Brooks find some early laughs in their mismatched characters, but the film doesn’t sustain or build on them. Besides, Mauldin and Solomon pander to Douglas’ vanity. It’s as if they didn’t have the nerve to ask him to play Vince Ricardo, the disheveled little man with a dumpy office in downtown Manhattan, so he becomes debonair, fast-talking Steve Tobias, a neo-James Bond trotting the globe in his own Lear Jet. But the character Andrew Bergman wrote is part of what made the original funny. You don’t make good comedy by sucking up to your star—or by front-loading all your laughs into the first half, hoping the rest will take care of itself.