There oughtta be a law: Albert Brooks and Michael 
    Douglas in The In-Laws.
There oughtta be a law: Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas in The In-Laws.

Till Death -- If We're Lucky

Occasionally I can be convinced that it's the singer, not the song. I've no love for Britney Spears's "Baby One More Time," but I can't get enough of Brit band Travis's laconic redo of said iconic single, which squeezes out the then-teen temptress's toxic sugar till it's just a bittersweet lament. On occasion, an artist can find meat and meaning in a previously wan and empty offering. But more often than not, the mediocre just stays that way, no matter how much money and hope you toss at it -- and the homage evolves into unintended insult. This is one of those times.

But that assumes there was something golden there to tarnish in the first place. For some reason, 1979's The In-Laws, in which conniving, fast-talking Peter Falk and nebbishy, ill-tempered Alan Arkin play mismatched fathers of soon-to-be-married kids, survives as a beloved comedy -- most likely because those who adore it haven't seen it in two decades, and what the memory doesn't forget, it generously forgives. When viewed today, the Arthur Hiller-directed film plays like most action comedies made in that era -- sluggish and crude, like a drunk trying too hard to entertain -- and has the muddied look and sound of something on the TV screen that's been awkwardly blown up to fit in theaters. A few moments endure, chief among them a scene in which CIA operative Falk orders dentist Arkin to "serpentine" his way through a hail of bullets, but its grins rarely burgeon into the bigger giggles that fans insist it contains. The In-Laws begs for a laugh track; its update, chromed and polished for a new millennium, goes one worse: It merely begs for a laugh.

Apologists for the first model will undoubtedly insist that the 2003 version gets it all wrong; they would be right, but for all the wrong reasons. There will be some who find this cover version the better take because it's bigger, louder, faster, more expensive-looking -- hey, it at least looks like a Hollywood movie. Yet The In-Laws doesn't work on so many levels that to explain why would take more effort than the filmmakers put into their movie. It's something Jerry Bruckheimer might have made had he not beaten himself to the sucker-punch with Bad Company (itself a sodden self-parody); The In-Laws even opens with a bloody assassination and a Bruckheimer-like car chase, lazily scored to Wings' "Live and Let Die." (The filmmakers can't decide whom they're stealing from, so they pick everyone's pockets.) Fleshed out by abundant gay jokes and Candice Bergen once more reduced to the sound fingernails make as they scratch a chalkboard, The In-Laws plays like a mid-season replacement series; it even has the built-in perennial cliffhanger of a wedding in peril.

With Michael Douglas in the Falk role and Albert Brooks in the Arkin part, this contemporary In-Laws takes from Andrew Bergman's original screenplay enough to merit its being labeled a remake, despite what producers have insisted. (Writer Nat Mauldin, responsible as well for Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle and 1996's The Preacher's Wife, is a virtual one-man cover band.) Mauldin and director Andrew Fleming (Dick) have gone bigger (currency-manufacturing plates stolen from the Federal Reserve have morphed into a killer submarine) and broader (Brooks, as foot doctor Jerry Peyser, dons a thong, hops in a hot tub and shares a man-on-man kiss, all in the span of a few seconds). But they drench their version in slapstick, hoping to disguise the paucity of wit.


The In-Laws

It winds up like all Hollywood comedies these days -- merely resembling something funny, offering up what you presume are jokes because every line ends with an exclamation mark followed by a wink...or an explosion, or a leap from a very tall building, or something so ridiculous that you're meant to roll your eyes so far back in your head that your mouth automatically springs open and emits what sounds like a chuckle. You half expect Douglas, who is to comedy what Albert Brooks is to Catholicism, to look into the camera and say to the audience, "C'mon, now that was funny."

Brooks, once a wonderfully wry cultural critic as actor and filmmaker in such flicks as Real Life and Modern Romance, is left with little to do except yell at Douglas and, on occasion, pass out as he's drugged and dragged from locale to locale. His podiatrist is but one more recent role that threatens to reduce him to comic footnote, à la Eddie Murphy or the latter-day Woody Allen. As his own movies slide headlong into the mawkish, his roles in the films of others (My First Mister, say) render him merely bungling and sad, a prematurely old man. He's gone from the teller of jokes to the butt of them, as if all the anger has been wrung from him and replaced by a heavy dose of self-loathing and gloom. His whine, that of the emasculated every-shmuck, has not aged well; once sympathetic as the audience's clumsy stand-in, Brooks is left here with little more to do than kvetch, like someone who missed the early-bird special at the smorgasbord.


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