[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Arthur Hiller tends to hedge his “serious” film bets by covering them with near-simultaneous releases of comedies. The In-Laws covers Nightwing in much the same way that The Out-of-Towners covered Love Story in 1970. And now, as then, the comedy is the better effort. The strength of The In-Laws lies in Andrew Bergman’s consistently funny dialogue, and in its smooth delivery by Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. The film opens, intriguingly, with the well-planned and audacious robbery of a Treasury Department armored van, in a spectacularly slick operation that caps itself when the crooks, having torched their way into the truck, start dumping pouches of bills and one of them mutters, “Shit, there’s nothing but money in here!” They’re actually after the engraver’s plates, which they soon find, setting off a bizarre misadventure in which mild-mannered dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin) becomes inexplicably and inextricably mixed up. He meets the father (Falk) of his son-in-law-to-be, who tells hilarious dinner-table stories about the horrors of life in the Guatemalan bush country, where tsetse flies the size of eagles carry off small children; this fellow also mumbles something about working for the government, hoodwinking Kornpett into accompanying him on an ostensible mission against fiscal guerrillas hiding out on a Caribbean isle called Tijada. Head of the plot to destroy the world’s currency system is Tijada’s dictator, a General Garcia (Richard Libertini), who has a Z-shaped scar on his face, does SeÃ±or Wences imitations with a face painted on his hand, and boasts the world’s foremost gallery of Tijuana velvet paintings.
The comic level is sustained throughout the film; and if Hiller’s touch is not exactly deft, neither is it hamhanded. In a frenzied chase sequence he controls his mise-en-scÃ¨ne well enough to keep the pursuit both interesting and funny, making a car slip on a spilled truckload of bananas, and shooting an impending head-on between our heroes’ car and a bus from behind and above the bus, with a lens just long enough that the car disappears completely before hitting the bus, there’s a breathless moment, and the car emerges, swerving, around a side of the bus. Of course, Hiller is no master, and he does more than his share of distractingly gratuitous things with the camera, including fancy angles and movements that have no justification at all. But he’s generally skillful with this particular kind of zany comedy, where a simple, reasonable situation quickly snowballs into an overwhelming, impossible mess. Were he to stick to this kind of work, Hiller might someday earn the possessory credit his recent films have insistently thrown at us.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Direction: Arthur Hiller. Screenplay: Andrew Bergman. Cinematography: David M. Walsh. Production design: Pato Guzman. Editing: Robert E. Swink. Music: John Morris. Executive producer: Alan Arkin.
The players: Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Richard Libertini, Nancy Dussault, Arlene Golonka, Penny Peyser, Ed Begley Jr., James Hong, Sammy Smith.