The In-Laws (1979) | The Criterion Collection
The In-Laws – 1979

Director Arthur Hiller
Screenplay Andrew Bergman
Starring Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Richard Libertini, Nancy Dussault, Penny Peyser, Arlene Golonka, David Paymer, Ed Begley Jr., James Hong

The In-Laws is a nearly flawless comedy brought to prominence by a director, screenwriter and two lead actors at the top of their game. The actors, Falk and Arkin are two of the most unique talents of their era. The studios of the seventies were in such a position of freedom, they allowed screenwriter Bergman (Blazing Saddles) to write a completely original screenplay matching the talent of his duo. It was a more adventurous time before sequels became the rule.

The story is about two fathers-in-law meeting for the first time. Arkin is Sheldon, a dentist in New York City. Vince (Falk) is a long time CIA agent gone rogue in an operation to uncover a counterfeiting scheme in a fictional Central American company. Vince’s efforts to involve the straight laced Sheldon into his plan are countered by Sheldon’s daughter’s imploring him to move beyond his worst nature. As a result, we see Arkin slide into a controlled delirium as he starts to relize how much he’s grown to like his absurd counterpart.

The chemistry between the two is exceptional. Falk’s ability to spin a yarn is met by Arkin incredible struggle to give him the benefit of each new doubt that arises. Nearly every other character (except for the delightful Hong and Libertini) plays it completely straight. This way we’re able to concentrate on Arkin’s delightfully innocent countenance trying to register each new line of bull coming his way. One almost has to watch the film twice to take in each actor’s facial movements, or in Arkin’s case, the eyes.

There are some drawbacks as some of the cast falls into an almost trance like state pushing past the absurdities like they are just another minute in the day. Fortunately that ridiculousness is downright magical most of the time. Bergman’s ideas are so in tune with his talent, it feels almost like it is too weird to be untrue.

Hiller keeps the pace moving through incredibly verbose dialog. It’s difficult to comprehend all of those words flow naturally in a 100 minute run time. If there are people who don’t find this film hilarious over 40 years after its release they need to better utilize their senses. If there is some cultural humor that may seem too edgy by today’s standards, they definitely need to seek out a history book. I know I sound like an old grouch, but I watched this film 3 times with the delight of a child. Each time I hoped to forget as much as possible. so I could enjoy it for the first time again.

Criterion makes a nice set here, with interviews with Arkin, as well as another special with interviews of the rest of the cast. The highlight of the disk though is the commentary with the writer, director, Falk and Arkin. Three of the group spend a significant time explaining it to Falk, who is delightful but possibly a few too many years past the film to recall things. But damn he enjoys it all over again in the best way. Then there is the steady Arkin who explains his efforts at enjoying making his cast mates laugh as well trying to keep from losing it while listening to Falk, Hong and others. The highlight beyond everything is hearing Arkin announce he will be unavailable for less than a minute, warning everyone to not ask him a question during that time. Of course Falk enjoys that too.

There are plenty of comedies of any era that don’t age well. Try one that work at such a human level, one would be hard pressed to avoid relating to it during any era.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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