The In-Laws April 8, 2021
Paul Lawrence Smith
Ed Begley, Jr.
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
ommy and Barbara (Michael Lembeck and Penny Peyser) are getting married this Sunday. No one on Barbara’s side of the family has yet met Tommy’s father Vince (Peter Falk), a successful consultant so often overseas on business that pinning him down for a family dinner date is about as easy as swatting a fly down on the first try. Fortunately a date is finally set at the beginning of the cuckoo comedy The In-Laws (1979)
at Barbara’s parents’ house; unfortunately, no one there thinks after this dinner that these clans will come together to be one big and happy family. Barbara’s mild-mannered dentist father, Shelly (Alan Arkin), immediately thinks something is off about Vince. All his stories at the dinner table sound made up. What was up with that anecdote about that 20-year-old Guatemalan business trip? And when engaged in conversation, Vince’s reactions are concerningly put-on. He’ll laugh too hard at a mild joke; he’ll react to a toast like he’d just reached the finale of a weepy romantic drama: with so many tears dripping out of his eyes that his table napkin becomes a DIY washcloth. (Hardly a pregnant pause finishes before he’s acting like he hadn’t been crying moments ago.)
Shelly’s thinking turns to knowing around the time Vince, with whiplash-like suddenness, berates Tommy for making a harmless wisecrack about how secretive Vince is with his business. (This unreadable patriarch thinks it not so unusual to ask if he could take a business call in the farthest-away space from the dining room: he’s prone to screaming at long-distance clients like a banshee, he claims.) When his guests leave, Shelly promptly commands Barbara to call the wedding off. Vince is crazy, and it doesn’t matter if Tommy seems level-headed now — it won’t be long before it’s clear to everybody that he is his father’s “acorn.” Barbara impressively manages to convince Shelly to cool it — she invokes some feminist ideology she learned in college to make him reconsider his feelings. By the night’s end Shelly is ready to forgive and forget— indulge Vince’s peculiarities down the line if necessary.
Indulging Vince is precisely the thing in The In-Laws to create mountains of trouble. The next morning, the businessman stops by Shelly’s Manhattan office to ask him if he could run him a five-minute errand for him as a favor. Could he break into Vince’s office safe for him? Vince would himself, but it would be so much easier if someone else could do it — you never know in this business if someone is going to come after you because of a decision they didn't agree with. Shelly agrees to the suspect task despite his understandable reservations — he wants to amend his private blow-up. But soon he’s reminded of the dangers of letting manners overcome one’s intuition. Some men follow him into the building; soon they have guns out. Shelly has to shatter Vince’s office window to shimmy down the fire escape and get to Vince’s cab below.
OK — maybe Vince wasn’t forthcoming about why he needed Shelly to do some amateur safe-cracking, or about how, he’s sorry to say, he is in trouble specifically because he is actually a CIA agent who recently orchestrated a United States Mint truck robbery to hinder a Central American inflation plot. (Imagine hearing all this in person after getting shot at for a task you thought would be a simple favor.) These in-laws are now going to have to bond — getting in trouble together has that effect. The movie soon swerves from New York to Honduras — Vince tricks Shelly into traveling there by saying they’re going to get on this private plane to Scranton, Penn., as a way to evade obstacles. In Honduras, Vince will hopefully put on the finishing touches of his foiling plot.
The In-Laws is gleefully loco. It doesn't have a loose feeling of improvisation, yet it nonetheless made me think of the improv trope of a made-up story continuing after one of its participants says “yes, and?” That participant in The In-Laws is exclusively Vince. Nobody can stop him from saying those two words over and over to himself. This comedy is compulsively watchable in part because we want to see how Vince is going to straighten out the latest knot of a situation he’s created for himself, in part because Falk and Arkin are an affable odd couple you want to see extemporize together. (Falk’s Vince is so hilariously sure of himself that he doesn’t notice most people think he’s totally gaga; Arkin wonderfully maintains funnily unamused deadpan affectations until his Shelly begins to notice that as stressful as this journey is, it’s kind of fun wriggling out of exciting dilemmas with such regularity.)
Andrew Bergman’s script keeps up the mania. There are several car chases in the course of the movie; none seem meant to excite us as they would in a thriller — they’re more so building on the film’s manic comic pacing like a Buster Keaton movie would. Arthur Hiller’s direction is just sobered enough to prevent the film’s temperamental plotting from ever feeling fanciful, pleased with its own busyness. The In-Laws is less funny once it gets to Honduras; the detour doesn’t retain the first act’s staggering quickness, and the subplot involving the dictator behind the inflation scheme can drag. (A tour through his prized art collection, though, is one of the movie’s comic bright spots.) The film is at its best in its early scenes, when Vince’s capriciousness still has its novelty. It’s entertaining watching him combat common courtesies without thinking twice. The introductory dinner scene has a cockeyed charm — you’re double-taking almost everything Vince says, with Shelly acting as our bemused stand-in. But one appreciates how far The In-Laws is willing to go (geographically too), and how its performers never appear to be overworking themselves the way the storyline sometimes does. The closing credits might have begun before some viewers have caught their breath. B+