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Movie review: 'The In-Laws'

2 stars (out of 4)

The In-Laws," like too many movies these days, takes a clever little idea and all but pounds it into the ground. In this overblown remake, the usually reliable Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks follow in the footsteps of Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, stars of the well-liked 1979 comedy thriller about mismatched dads and prospective in-laws thrown together by their kids' impending wedding. That movie was a consistently funny, charming knockabout, and Falk and Arkin's conflicting styles and personalities struck real comic sparks.

That's not true of the work of director Andrew Fleming, writers Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon, and Douglas and Brooks -- though all of them certainly try hard. The movie submerges its odd-couple costars in almost nonstop action -- dangling from rooftops, battling with spies and counterspies and attacking a stolen Russian submarine planted in Lake Michigan while also trying to attend their kids' wedding and patch up all the family problems that erupt.

It's too much, too fast -- unlike the first movie, which has a very clever Andrew Bergman script to set off its star pair. The new "In-Laws" rarely lets us relax and enjoy the characters. They tend to whirl by us in an avalanche of action scenes and comedy complications. Douglas plays the recklessly macho Steve Tobias, father of the groom (and a CIA agent in the midst of a dangerous triple-cross arms case), and Brooks plays Jerry Peyser, a fussy Chicago podiatrist and the uptight father of the bride who develops an instant dislike for the brash, double-talking Steve. Yet, maddeningly, Jerry is hurled right into the middle of Steve's case and is forced to cope with Steve's fights and chases; his volatile colleague, Angela Harris (Robin Tunney); and even to endure the erotic onslaught of unhinged French arms dealer Jean-Pierre Thibodoux (David Suchet), who woos Jerry in saunas and calls him (at Steve's behest) "Fat Cobra."

Meanwhile, the wedding -- as it was in the Falk-Arkin version -- is constantly threatened by the two dads' increasing absences and sudden explosions of mad violence. Bride and groom Melissa and Mark (Lindsay Sloane of "Bring It On" and Ryan Reynolds of "Van Wilder"); Jerry's wife, Katherine (Maria Ricossa); and Steve's vituperative ex-wife, Judy (Candice Bergen), become flabbergasted onlookers as the dads roam in and out, occasionally pursued by cops or crooks. Finally, in the elaborate finale, a madcap wedding reception, everything comes together, none too satisfyingly but with plenty of bangs.

When Bergman wrote "The In-Laws" back in the '70s, he was influenced by the well-made screenplays of the Hollywood Golden Age, as well as the more irreverent and radical scripts of the '70s. He was lucky enough to get the right actors, Falk and Arkin. The screenwriters here, Mauldin and Solomon (who wrote the hilarious "Men in Black" and the honorably serious and smart "Levity"), seem instead to be caught up in the system, along with director Fleming.

Nothing in this new movie gives you the honest pleasure of the original's famous "serpentine" scene or the crazy family dinner where Arkin's beleaguered dentist Sheldon Kornpett has to listen to Falk's apparently wacko Vince Ricardo spinning wild yarns about Amazon adventures where tsetse flies as big as eagles carry off children "in their beaks." Falk's rumpled, jabbering, Columbo-ish daredevil Vince seems a possible nutcase and rogue agent in much of that film. Douglas' sleeker, spiffier Steve, on the other hand, always seems a plausible superspy, even when he's acting crazy himself. Douglas can be a good self-kidding comedian, as he proved in "The War of the Roses," and he can also undermine his own slick movie image and play it rumpled and haggard, as he did in "Wonder Boys." But in "The In-Laws," we know from the beginning that he's a slick hero and a legit spy tangled up in a dangerous case, and that short-circuits the joke.

Brooks seems adrift, too -- as well he might be in a film that actually brings in disco kingpins K.C. and the Sunshine Band for a cameo. Brooks has a much more delicate comic style than Arkin, whose poor innocent dentist was driven nearly out of his mind by Vince in the original. Brooks' wonderful whining reactions to life's little upheavals don't quite fit in a movie like this, where the comedy comes from grand, wild gestures and seeming paranoid nightmares that turn out to be real.

Of the other characters, the bride and groom tend to disappear into the woodwork, Bergman starts a promising grande dame faddist routine that goes nowhere, and the versatile Suchet is locked into a one-note seduction joke that almost reminds you of Groucho trying to seduce Margaret Dumont, without cigar or one-liners. Throughout "The In-Laws," you get glimpses of the film it could have been if it had included more quiet scenes with Douglas and Brooks, stripped free of the formulas.

Instead, they almost revel in the gimmickry. You could say the same of Fleming, who's tended to work best when dealing with young protagonists, as in "Dick," "The Craft" and "Threesome." Fleming has a serious approach to comedy, visible here too, but drowned in the action and hoopla. He seems almost overwhelmed and the movie preposterously inflated. Under more control, it could have been a decent show -- perhaps not quite as funny as the 1979 "In-Laws," but more engaging and entertaining. In this era of high-stakes moviemaking, that's no small achievement.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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