THIS IS NOT A MOVIE for the hypercritical. The sloppiness of Arthur Hiller's direction becomes apparent at the end, when you can look back and survey the ruins he's made of a basically funny idea. If little inconsistencies cause you to cringe-the same shot repeated several times in the course of a car chase, or subplots that never get resolved- The In-Laws may bring on a seizure.
But it's summer, most audiences are inclined to be charitable, and The In-Lawswill probably be a big hit. That won't be a terrible injustice, because Hiller's fumbling is redeemed by the movie's one important asset: Peter Falk.
Falk plays a CIA agent who is apparently off his nut. He wanders unconcerned into streams of gunfire, shouts about his supposedly secret work in the middle of a crowded luncheonette, and prattles about huge insects he fought in the South American jungle. He's not that different from Columbo-the same bravado, but fewer blue-collar airs and more of a glint of lunacy in his eyes.
Falk's foil is a very withdrawn Alan Arkin. The two meet because their children are getting married. Arkin-a Manhattan dentist with suburban house and wife-isn't pleased with Falk's vague description of his line of work. "Dad is always making these mysterious phone calls," his son says. Falk gets into trouble in a big international monetary scheme, and drags Arkin into a mess of chases and narrow escapes.
Arkin never holds up his end of the comedy, and at several points he lets it fall with a thud on the audience's feet. The screenplay calls for him to respond continuously to Falk's antics with a series of outraged quips and grimaces, but instead of playing a genuinely angry man or countering Falk's lunacy with his own, Arkin is stone-faced. At one point he literally falls into a stupor.
Despite the deadness of Arkin's performance, The In-Laws remains a funny movie throughout. This is not intellectual humor-it smacks more of Mel Brooks than Woody Allen, but has little of the former's vulgarity or the latter's self-indulgence. The best jokes center on Falk's character, and the audience remains uncertain about his qualifications-whether he's really a CIA agent or just a loon who thinks he's one-until the movie's end.
In some ways The In-Laws is an acid satire of the incompetence of America's intelligence "community." Falk has a picture of John F. Kennedy on his wall with the inscription, "At least we tried-thanks for everything-JFK." "You mean you were involved in the Bay of Pigs?" Arkin asks, deadpan. "I was the one who came up with the idea," Falk proudly replies. This is a CIA agent who confirms the worst charges that Congress and the press have brought against the agency-a liar and bumbler, he seems to act without orders and puts civilians in danger.
Until the denouement, viewers who want to believe that lunatics are not standard intelligence figures can clutch Falk's own statement that the agency had kicked him out and the confirmation of a CIA higher-up whom Arkin calls. "The man's a total lunatic-I'd advise you to keep as far away from him as possible," Arkin is told.
TO WRAP UP the plot, the two in-laws fly in a private jet manned by two jabbering Chinese to a Caribbean banana republic, and the jokes become considerably more childish. Richard Libertini plays the pacifist dictator whose battalions chant verses by Millay and whose art collection is filled with garish nudes. He does keep the audience laughing, but it's all very strained-as if everyone involved in the movie had tired of it and decided to take the easy way out. The ending hits the same flat note, as Falk and Arkin are-surprise-saved, and Falk's integrity is restored.
When the happy after-glow of The In-Laws' final wedding scene wears off, you look back and realize just how careless the director has been. Perhaps the movie was rushed through post-production, or perhaps Hiller just got bored with his own creation. In either case, his lack of respect for his audience shows up in the form of plot inconsistencies and editing flubs. Most glaringly, he spends about 15 minutes of the early part of the film building a subplot about Arkin's wife and her discovery of her husband's entanglement with Falk, and then drops it without a blink. This is not the stuff of entertaining movies, let alone good ones, and Hiller was lucky he had an actor as talented as Falk to save his film.
The advertisements for The In-Laws herald it as "The First Certified Crazy Person's Movie." That's a silly label indeed for this comedy-thriller-you don't know whether it's meant to refer to the star or the director.