- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas don’t sound like an auspicious comedy mismatch, especially when fronting for a remake in roles originated a generation ago by Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. Demonstrating that it can be wise to reserve judgment, the teamwork of Mr. Brooks and Mr. Douglas in “The In-Laws,” a screwball farce about prospective fathers-in-law with diametrically opposite personalities, proves surprisingly chipper. Not enough to prevent the plot from unraveling in the closing stages, but certainly enough to achieve a harmony that eluded the Arkin-Falk team.

Screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon have done quite a lot of tinkering in revamping the screenplay of “The In-Laws,” circa 1979. It was the first solo credit of Andrew Bergman, who eventually got the privilege of directing his own material and justified the trust on at least two occasions: “The Freshman” in 1990 and “Honeymoon in Vegas” in 1992. Mr. Arkin was cast as a dentist, the father of the groom in an approaching marriage ceremony. He was terrorized by Mr. Falk as the maniacal father of the bride.

The tendency of the latter to shanghai his timid new acquaintance for sudden excursions to exotic and perilous locations was explained eventually, in a manner of speaking, by a clandestine profession: secret agent. Peter Falk being Peter Falk, it was always easier to confuse the troublemaking father-in-law with a demented mobster — someone like the comic heavy in the new “In-Laws,” as a matter of fact.

David Suchet plays an international smuggler and cutthroat named Jean-Pierre Thibodoux. He maintains a luxurious residence in Provence and becomes madly smitten with Mr. Brooks as stick-in-the-mud Chicago podiatrist Jerry Peyser. Peyser is the unwilling sidekick of Mr. Douglas as indomitable CIA agent Steve Tobias. The introductions are made by Tobias, who is setting up Thibodoux for a sting and finds it expedient to spirit Peyser to France on the eve of the wedding, which now matches the doctor’s daughter, Melissa (Lindsay Sloane), with the spy’s son, Marc (Ryan Reynolds).

Albert Brooks seems ideal for embodying an apprehensive temperament, as does Michael Douglas for an adventurous one. The new movie makes no attempt to obscure Tobias’ profession from the audience, and concealment would be pointless because Mr. Douglas makes fictional sense as a seasoned and still dashing undercover agent.

The suitability of the actors is sometimes undermined by inattentive or inane touches in the script. For example, Peyser is shown acting oblivious to the feelings of his own patient during a medical lecture. That’s the sort of shortcoming we don’t expect of him. It derives from a writing insecurity: the need to coerce a laugh at any cost.

Director Andrew Fleming stages a nimble, disrupted get-acquainted dinner date in Chicago, where the divorced Tobias contrives to host the Peysers (Maria Ricossa is a disarming, even-tempered pleasure as the doctor’s spouse, Katherine) while also hatching plots and eluding pursuers on both sides of the law. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant, reportedly operated by old comrades in arms. The proprietor, Quan Lee (Chang Tseng), starts to explain the Tobias link with a pantomime that recalls the Russian-roulette sequence from “The Deer Hunter.” Tobias intervenes with a translation that tidies up the owner’s alarming gestures.

Mr. Fleming gets Albert Brooks and David Suchet into a hot tub together, with results that reconcile purposeful and goofy inclinations. This soak illustrates the lost opportunities of the comparable scene between Kathy Bates and Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt.” Mr. Fleming even gets a better peekaboo payoff by having Mr. Brooks exit the water while clad only in a crimson thong.

You’re not sure how long the screenplay can stay ahead of disillusion, but it certainly manages to remain buoyant through the French interlude. Doubling back to Chicago with Mr. Suchet in somewhat tardy pursuit proves a cumbersome approach to wrapping things up with a slapstick spectacle: the wedding inundated by a tidal wave, the consequence of having to deal with Thibodoux, lurking preposterously in a submarine in Lake Michigan.

It might have been smarter to settle Thibodoux’s hash in France and keep the wedding dry. No one seems to have thought of a witty explanation for the absence of the fathers-in-law from Chicago. There’s too much time to reflect that the newlyweds are less than impressive.

I admit to some carry-over prejudice on this score because Mr. Reynolds played the title role in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” one of the degenerate movie farces of 2002. If anything, the footage wasted on the young couple might have been reserved profitably for the parents. Candice Bergen makes a belated entrance as the former Mrs. Tobias, but she and Mr. Douglas have less sparring time than they deserve.

Still, as superfluous remakes go, “The In-Laws” is an upbeat and diverting specimen. Perhaps it’s destined for double bills with the Crispin Glover remake of “Willard,” to illustrate how things can go right if you cast something cleverly on the rebound.

**1/2

TITLE: “The In-Laws”

RATING: PG-13 (Scattered profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual slapstick; fleeting nudity and facetious episodes of violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Andrew Fleming. Screenplay by Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon, based on the screenplay of the 1979 movie of the same name written by Andrew Bergman.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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