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A Modern Screwball Comedy: The In-Laws (’79)

THE IN-LAWS, Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, 1979, (c) Warner Brothers / Courtesy: Everett Collection

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Weddings can be stressful. The planning the actual event, along with facing the responsibilities surrounding making a life-long commitment to another person, creates both an exciting and terrifying experience for the couple. But all of the nonsense of the wedding can’t compare to the stress of the couple’s parents meeting for the first time. In Arthur Hiller’s 1979 comedy The In-Laws, we witness this first meeting, over an awkward dinner filled with tall tales and bizarre behavior. Alan Arkin is Sheldon “Shelly” Kornpett, a successful dentist whose daughter is days away from her wedding. Shelly is supportive of his daughter and her fiancée, but has serious concerns about his daughter’s future father-in-law, Vince Ricardo, played by Peter Falk; an enigmatic character who has yet to set aside the time to meet the Kornpett family. Shelly has concerns about Vince, specifically in relation to his career as a so-called international consultant. After receiving a bit of unsolicited advice from one of his dental patients, Shelly is convinced that Vince is a shady character and is seriously considering calling the wedding off altogether.

At the start of the weekend’s wedding festivities, Shelly and his wife invite their future in-laws over for dinner. Shelly is skeptical that Vince will show up, fueling his unsettled feeling about the entire wedding. More than hour after the start of the dinner date, Vince and his wife arrive, along with their son, with apologies and hugs. For a moment, it seems like everything is going to go just fine between the Kornpetts and Ricardos. And then Vince starts regaling the Kornpetts with stories of his various travels for his job, which it’s still not totally clear what that job actually entails. When recounting a story about “giant, beaked, baby-stealing tsetse flies,” carrying off small children deep in the South American rainforest, it’s so blatantly obvious to everyone else at the table that he’s full of it. And not only does he have a flair for the dramatic, Vince might be slightly insane. Lovable, but completely unhinged. And while there is something endearing about this eccentric character, Shelly’s fears are confirmed and he attempts to call off the wedding. Shelly’s daughter, Barbara (Penny Peyser), reassures her father that while a bit “off,” Vince is quite sweet and that there’s absolutely nothing to be worried about. Of course, Barbara is wrong—there is something very concerning and mysterious about Vince’s business dealings. From secretive phone calls in the basement, to contradictory stories and obvious lies, Shelly suspects that Vince is involved in some sort of criminal activity. And for the next two hours, we are thrown head first into a confusing, hysterical adventure.

The In-Laws is a hilarious send-up of the classic Hollywood screwball comedy, an impressive feat considering the boundary-pushing aesthetic of post-Production Code filmmaking and its obsession with more shocking comedy. The film follows a familiar format: an eccentric personality draws a milquetoast character out of his routine, putting him in situations he’d never dream of being involved with, opening his mind to the world around him and giving some much-needed perspective in life. Throwing a couple of newly acquainted fathers together, both with drastically different personalities, into ridiculous and dangerous situations makes for a hilarious story. While certainly a product of the time and similar in comedic style to other great seventies comedies, such as 1979’s The Jerk (one of my favorite films of all-time), The In-Laws really owes much of its inspiration to those earlier screwball comedies. The film is this weird mix of The Odd Couple (1968), a little Bringing Up Baby (1938) and To Be or Not to Be (1942).

What makes The In-Laws so funny is that for most of the film we don’t know who is telling the truth. Is Vince who he says he is? Is he really a CIA operative trying to bust up an international money laundering scheme? Surely no one would disclose such information…except anything is possible when Vince is involved. He’s endearing, even when he recklessly throws Shelly into deadly situations against his will. At the end of their unexpected adventure, Shelly and Vince are the guests of a South American dictator who has been identified as a key player in this laundering ring. For a few brief moments, Shelly appears to be finally letting go of his uptight, cautious personality, only to have the rug pulled out from under him, and all of us, one more time.

From Peter Falk’s Vince repeatedly commanding that Shelly run “serpentine” to avoid being shot; to a hilarious sequence in General Garcia’s compound (a brilliant performance by the late Richard Libertini); to Shelly’s descent into hysterical madness as a result of being thrown into Vince’s chaotic world, The In-Laws not only captures the essence of the screwball comedy, it perfects it. Truly one of the greatest comedies ever made, and is now being introduced to new audiences with its recent blu-ray release in the Criterion Collection and its limited engagement on Filmstruck for remainder of September. If you’ve never seen the film, definitely make sure to put on your watch list. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Jill Blake

 

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