Arthur Hiller’s The In-Laws hides a screwball heart underneath its buddy-comedy veneer, with Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk), a wonky C.I.A. operative, challenging the easygoing, complacent demeanor of Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin), a Manhattan-based dentist whose daughter is set to wed Vince’s son. The men’s first meeting comes during a dinner at Sheldon’s upper-crust home, the exterior of which is humorously shot as if it were an Impressionist painting, with sparse lights illuminating enough to see the shapes and spatial depth of the house’s reach. It’s one of the film’s few deviations from an otherwise high-key lighting scheme, and it serves to skewer Sheldon’s confined existence. Aside from his trophy home, he’s an artless man imitating lived experience in the ways someone who’s made a small fortune pulling deteriorating molars from the mouths of the elderly might conceive of.
Yet Hiller shies away from addressing socio-economic matters, favoring instead repeated scenes of repartee between Sheldon and Vince. Their tenuous relationship is facilitated by animosity over behavioral differences stemming from their immediate circustances instead of political or ideological disagreements. And such conflicts occur throughout the course of the film over perceived slights of decorum: After a night of Vince telling bizarro stories of his travels to Guatemala, where he claims large flies would swoop down, scoop up, and fly away with young children, Sheldon warns his daughter, Barbara (Penny Peyser), that her fiancé, Tommy (Michael Lembeck), is “a bad acorn,” much to her confusion. The line recalls an earlier conversation in which one of Sheldon’s patients, an elderly man desperate to keep one of his much beloved teeth, suggests the “acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Screenwriter Andrew Bergman makes notable use of reoccurring language gaffs, so that a character’s seemingly innocuous line reappears later, but spoken by a different character, who can never quite communicate the context of its original utterance. For his part, Hiller plays such moments without a wink and allows other visual elements, like an abnormal amount of toothpaste spilling from Sheldon’s mouth, to keep the jokes at a healthy, multi-layered clip. Nevertheless, The In-Laws has a politeness about it that even its zanier sequences, like one involving a prolonged trip to “Tijara,” a Central American island, can’t shake, primarily because neither man’s driving motivations exceed comedically accessible, broadly farcical ends, especially with Vince repeatedly putting Sheldon in harm’s way.
The film makes explicit its intended screwball allegiances through a scene between Sheldon and Barbara in which the daughter theorizes how her father doesn’t want her to wed because of “complicated sexual things,” though she quickly states she isn’t talking about incest. Rather, it’s Sheldon’s fear of giving away his daughter, manifest through Vince’s unusual doings that leads Sheldon to want to call off the wedding. Upon hearing this prognosis, Sheldon scoffs: “This is what I was paying $6000 a year in tuition for?” As an instance of postmodern comedy, the film indirectly invites Barbara’s reading of Sheldon’s behavior as an assessment of the screwball comedy as a whole, where the challenging of a man’s masculinity by a woman conventionally drives much of the narrative’s action.
With The In-Laws, that premise finds its way onto the streets of New York and into the crosshairs of the then-burgeoning action genre, with films like The French Connection and Dirty Harry seemingly targeted for their scowling, violent, and conservative male heroes. Hiller, despite allowing numerous gunshots throughout, keeps explicit violence to a minimum, preferring instead General Garcia (Richard Libertini), a kooky, bloodthirsty Central American dictator who entertains (or is it harasses?) guests with a pair of lips drawn on his hand, which he uses for a very kissy ventriloquist act.
The character’s silly demeanor wisely takes aim at films where the depiction of Hispanic figures is almost exclusively foreboding (once again, The French Connection comes to mind with its use of Fernando Rey’s character). And yet, despite these considerable jabs and jokes, The In-Laws never makes deeper, sustained sense of its premise and seems content to revel in the more basic pleasure of seeing Falk and Arkin interact with one another. They certainly work well as a comedic duo, but when the pair comes parachuting into their children’s wedding with millions of dollars in tow from their illegal operations and the audience is meant to laugh and applaud the happy ending’s absurdity, it’s difficult to tell whose fantasy the film is ultimately fulfilling.
Criterion has done a magnificent job with this restoration and transfer, which comes via a sharp 2K scan taken from the 35mm interpositive. A deliberate, classical Hollywood pulse beats in nearly every frame of the film, so that characters are brightly lit, evenly positioned, and shown with maximal visibility. Shots on the streets of New York have the depth of field and precision of interior-set scenes, meaning there's little, if any, deviation in terms of image sharpness. Likewise, the monaural track is clear from front to back, with nary a crack, hiss, or pop to be heard.
A solid lot overall, these supplements primarily stick to insights from the talent. A commentary track recorded in 2003 boasts director Arthur Hiller, actors Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, and writer Andrew Bergman, each of whom contributes insightful and often funny anecdotes about the film’s production. Falk’s gentle ribbing of Arkin for having such a bad memory is especially delightful. A new interview with Arkin looks at his career in relation to The In-Laws and charts his stated preference for playing characters not unlike himself. There’s also a new featurette entitled "In Support of The In-Laws," which features interviews with several of the film’s supporting actors, including Ed Begley Jr. and James Hong. A trailer and a pair of essays, one by comedy writer Steven Winer and one by Hiller, round out these fine extras.
A farcical mix of cerebral and physical comedy, The In-Laws looks swell in its Blu-ray debut thanks to another stellar release from the Criterion Collection.