One of the necessities of screwball comedy--an endangered, if not extinct, species--is that the practitioner be more sophisticated and aware than the batty socialites, pompous academics and blustering snobs he means to deflate. In the golden age of this fragile form, master satirists like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges certainly fit the bill. They never met a stuffy heiress they couldn't democratize or a misplaced dinosaur bone they couldn't transform into a major plot element.
The makers of Krippendorf's Tribe, another thinly veiled attempt to revive screwball style in the Nineties, don't quite measure up. I think this is a movie of many charms, not the least of which is the audacious notion that an absent-minded professor can use his own dysfunctional kids as actors in an elaborate anthropological hoax and that the hoax can wind up reinvigorating the family. But the movie's director, Todd Holland (producer and director of TV's The Larry Sanders Show), and its writer, Charlie Peters (working from Frank Parkin's novel), are clearly more conversant with sitcom than screwball.
Tribe takes potshots at such worthy targets as bitchy faculty politics, tabloid TV's corruption of science and our own enduring Yankee gullibility. But the style of the picture is so raw and plodding that you almost expect a laugh track and sixty-second spots for tile cleanser and laxative. It has incandescent moments, but it's generally dumber than the very dumbbells it would skewer.
The frantic Richard Dreyfuss has landed what in 1937 or so might have been the Cary Grant part. Dreyfuss is James Krippendorf, a rumpled anthropologist with a scraggly beard (second cousin, perhaps, to the shark nerd he played in Jaws), whose household is beset by chaos, disorder and unpaid bills. Mrs. Krippendorf, we learn, has died young, beautiful and academically superior to her spouse, leaving three children unhinged and a husband emotionally crippled--crippled as in Krippendorf.
Dreyfuss dithers and stutters in ways suave Cary would not, probably because tell-all neurosis is now the order of the day. Krippendorf spends his evenings looking at reels of old movie footage he shot himself: the largely incoherent record of the family's long trip to exotic New Guinea, where our bearded hero managed to squander a $100,000 research grant and return home with exactly nothing in the way of insight about the native populations. The movie doesn't explain: Apparently grief has stopped him dead in his tracks.
Now the good professor (second cousin also to the music nerd Dreyfuss played in Mr. Holland's Opus) has to deliver a lecture about his New Guinea findings, and he's panicked.
Enter the obligatory Carole Lombard/Katharine Hepburn character from screwball days of yore--the ambitious, fast-talking human dynamo who would put poor, geeky Krippendorf's life back together and eventually help him outflank the snooty college president (Doris Belack), the conniving department rival (Lily Tomlin) and the assorted opportunists who would glory in his demise. This time it's Jenna Elfman (late of TV's Dharma and Greg) as The Woman, perky Veronica Micelli, a junior scientist on the make, academically speaking.
But first our baffled hero (second cousin, come to think of it, to the space-alien nerd Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters) struggles to cover his under-researched butt. Sweating bullets in front of a packed lecture hall, he manages to improvise some mumbo jumbo about a lost tribe called the Shelmikedmu. Against all odds, it values the single male parent (the Uta Bagee, no less) and practices all sorts of exotic rituals no one's ever heard of. Surprise: The assembled scientists love every minute of this fiction stitched together from Krippendorf's own longings.
Is this the end of it? Is our man out of the woods? Of course not. The university now demands documentary evidence of the lost-tribe findings. Before you know it, Krippendorf has transformed his suburban backyard into an ersatz jungle village where, with the help of a movie camera and his own reluctant kids, Shelly, Mickey and Edmund--the only "Shelmikedmu" on the face of the earth--he enlarges on his fraud. They dream up bogus circumcision ceremonies, animal-purification rites. He's got the kids done up in exotic makeup and feathers, his own motherless tribe in a magical process of reconstitution. They become an instant hit--on and off campus.
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This is the point at which the old masters of screwball would really break loose, mowing down the rich and the foolish and the self-satisfied with surreal barbed wit. Unfortunately for Krippendorf's Tribe, this is the moment when Holland, Peters and Dreyfuss retreat into Tuesday Night TV Land.
Personally, I loved the moment when the beleaguered Krippendorf--who has no choice but to impersonate the Shelmikedmu chieftain, complete with feathered headdress, tribal vines and full body paint--must eat a live wriggling slug on a TV talk show. There's another rare hoot when Dreyfuss and Elfman are caught exchanging costumes and playing kissy-face by the sullen geezerette (Frances Bay) who's about to renew their study grant. But these anarchistic moments are too few and too scattered, and the Krippendorf kids (Natasha Lyonne, Gregory Smith and Carl Michael Lindner) are just a little too cute to be believed. And Elfman, as the intrusive assistant who's falling for her mentor, lacks the crazy force of her models from the Thirties.
In the end, a bit too much feel-good redemption has been injected into the farce, and you may walk out of the theater feeling vaguely cheated by your own chuckles: Here's a movie that could have been uncompromisingly funny--greatly funny, even--if only it didn't pull its punches and lose its polish. There are still many things to like here, including Tomlin's madcap fact-finding tour to the land of the Shelmikedmu (shot in Hawaii, actually) and the moviemakers' wonderfully jaundiced view of the unholy marriage between television and academia. But these comic savages aren't quite savage enough, and that makes all the difference.
Screenplay by Charlie Peters, from a novel by Frank Parkin. Directed by Todd Holland. With Richard Dreyfuss, Jenna Elfman, Lily Tomlin, Natasha Lyonne, Gregory Smith and Carl Michael Lindner.