Roger Ebert Home

It’s Over the Ocean to Scranton, Pennsylvania: An Appreciation of “The In-Laws”

The last few weeks have been an extraordinarily grim period for world history, in which even those with the sunniest of attitudes may be finding themselves overwhelmed with the violence, cruelty and meanness that seems to come relentlessly from all directions. In other words, it is the perfect time to take a break and sit down to watch a great comedy. Of course, trying to recommend one is itself fraught with difficulties because, while people all over the world can usually agree on things that are sad or exciting or happy, trying to get even a handful of people to agree on what is funny is generally an exercise in futility—some will continue to argue over whether Chaplin was better than Keaton or vice-versa, and whether the filmography of Jerry Lewis is genius or grotesque.

In a fortuitous move, the good people at the Criterion Collection have just released one of the few movies that has the ability to rend anyone who sees it virtually helpless with laughter. This would be “The In-Laws,” a wild 1979 romp that became a cult classic from practically the moment that it was released and has subsequently grown to be generally regarded as one of the all-time classics of screen comedy. When I first saw it at the age of eight with my family at the long-defunct Woodfield Theaters in the suburbs of Chicago, I probably didn’t get half the jokes at the time and I still thought it was hysterical. Upon subsequent viewings—and believe me, there have been plenty of those—I would not only get more of the jokes but I would gain an enormous appreciation for how all of its oddball elements come together perfectly.

The film was the brainchild of Andrew Bergman, a writer whose dissertation for his PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison was an incisive study on Depression-era Hollywood that was later published as “We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films.” He went to Hollywood to break into the film industry and first gained attention when a Western spoof that he wrote named “Tex X” was acquired by Mel Brooks, and, after being rewritten by a group of screenwriters that included Brooks and Richard Pryor, transformed into the comedy hit “Blazing Saddles.” Although the film was celebrated as Brooks’ baby in the public eye, insiders were aware of Bergman’s original contributions, and so he began to attract interest as well.

According to the audio commentary on this Criterion release, Bergman claims that the original genesis of “The In-Laws” was to create a sequel to “Freebie and the Bean,” a raucous buddy cop comedy featuring Alan Arkin and James Caan that was a hit in 1974. This one would team Arkin with Peter Falk, then a big star in his own right on “Columbo.” Though the idea of doing a sequel to “Freebie and the Bean” did not really interest any of them, the notion of teaming up Arkin and Falk—who had never appeared together before—did, and Bergman set off to create a screenplay that would make the most of the pairing. After several false starts, he came up with a script that won the approval of the two actors and also attracted director Arthur Hiller, whose career to that point had included such hits as “Love Story” and “Silver Streak” as well as recent flops like the misfired biopic “W.C. Fields and Me” and the killer bat epic “Nightwing.”

The leaping-off point of the film is the imminent marriage of the daughter of the exceedingly normal and quiet Manhattan dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin) to the son of Vince Ricardo (Falk), who has been away on business so frequently that Sheldon has not yet actually met his future in-law. Finally, the two families get together for a dinner during which Vince regales them with an increasingly insane story about a nine-month period he spent working in the jungles of Guatemala, during which he claims to have seen “tsetse flies down there the size of eagles” swoop down and carry off children. (Alas, nothing could be done because “there is a tremendous amount of red tape in the bush.”) Fearing that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, Sheldon begs his daughter to call off the engagement, but she and his wife (Nancy Dassault) eventually calm him down.

He gives Vince a second chance the next day when his pending in-law drops by Sheldon’s office and asks him to do one small favor—go over to Vince’s office, break into his safe and retrieve the bag inside. Sheldon reluctantly agree and quickly finds himself being chased by a couple of gun-toting thugs before he catches up with Vince and the two escape following a brief shootout. As Vince explains, he belongs with the CIA and is working on a case involving a plot based out of Central America to steal engraving plates from the U.S. Mint and cause worldwide inflation as a way of obliterating their own debt. Alas, when the CIA shot down his plan, which involved actually stealing the plates from the mint and offering them up for sale, for being too dangerous and crazy, Vince took it upon himself to pull the job on his own—one set of plates is in the bag and the other is now hidden in Sheldon’s basement. When it is inevitably discovered, Sheldon now finds himself being pursued by Treasury agents, but Vince insists that he can clear it all up with a quick jaunt to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Needless to say, things get far more complicated than that as Sheldon is instead dragged south of Honduras and learns there is a very good chance that Vince was drummed out of the CIA for mental health reasons.

One of the problems with a lot of contemporary comedies is the essentially ramshackle nature of their construction—too many of them are little more than an assemblage of gags and improv sessions, tenuously linked at best. Granted, comedy films as a rule should have a loose and spontaneous feeling to them, but, too often, one gets the feeling they are literally being made up as they go along. One of the great things about “The In-Laws,” however, is that it is a perfectly constructed screen comedy—one in which every single element fits together with jigsaw-like precision—while still conveying a freewheeling attitude throughout. It starts off with a basic premise that most anyone who has seen their child get married can relate to—the anxiety felt over merging their family together with a bunch of strangers—and then builds upon Sheldon’s increasingly bizarre dealings with Vince until it finally gets to the point where the only possible way to survive is to simply accept the craziness. As things progress, the story gets more convoluted, including chases, an assassination and a meeting with the deranged general (Richard Libertini) behind the inflation plot (not to mention his trusted advisor, a Señor Wences-style hand puppet). But Bergman pulls off a considerable trick—he not only prevents it from going completely off the narrative rails but constructs it in such a way that for most of the time, it's indeed plausible that the CIA's explanation for Vince’s mental stability may be true after all. The script even contains one of the rarest sights in the entire genre of screen comedy—an ending that wraps everything up in an eminently satisfying manner, while still scoring a few final chuckles in the bargain.

Not that the film has exactly been hard up for laughs at that point. “The In-Laws” is stuffed with comedic bits all the way through, ranging from slapstick to bizarre wordplay to pure farce, and virtually every single one hits perfectly—this is one of those movies where you have to watch it a second time in order to catch the jokes that you missed the first time around because you were laughing so hard. The first big scene in the film between Arkin and Falk—the dinner sequence where their characters first meet and Arkin is increasingly perplexed by the nonsense Falk is spewing but is too polite to call him on it—is such a masterpiece that it should be taught in classes on how to write and perform comedy. The writing is, of course, spectacular—there are more genuine laughs in this one sequence than in most full films that purport to be comedies—but the staging is equally impressive. The insanity of Falk is complemented by the way that everyone else plays it as straight-faced as possible, to prevent it from going too far.

This scene would be the unquestioned highlight of most comedies but “The In-Laws” is just getting started: There is the scene in which Falk tells his cab driver (David Paymer in his film debut) about working in the CIA. (“The benefits are terrific. The trick is not to get killed. That’s really the key to the benefit program.”); the scene in which Falk tries to explain to Arkin what is going on in a crowded restaurant and admits that the Bay of Pigs invasion was actually his idea; the car chase sequence in which Arkin eludes his pursuers by pulling his car into what turns out to be an auto painting shop. (“I HAVE FLAMES ON MY CAR!”); the flight down south on a chartered plane flown by a couple of Chinese men (James Wong and Danny Kwan) who do not let their lack of English prevent them from performing all the pre-flight rituals, including explaining how to operate the flotation devices; the climactic scene involving the mad general, a finally laid-back Arkin, an unusually nervous Falk and a firing squad serenading them with a choral rendition of “Trees” in Spanish. (In a previously unpublished essay printed in the booklet accompanying the Blu-ray, Arthur Hiller talks about how this scene developed.) Then, of course, there is the legendary “Serpentine!” sequence that somehow manages to top even the aforementioned dinner sequence in terms of sheer hilarity. Even the offhand jokes are great—there is a moment where Arkin, having snuck away from Vince to contact the CIA guy, returns and claims he went to a newsstand “but all they had was Hustler in Spanish—El Hustlero” that left me helpless with laughter when I was eight and continues to crack me up to this day.

As for the original impetus of the film—to create a vehicle that would team up Arkin and Falk—the two stars play off of each other so brilliantly that you would think that they had been doing so for their entire careers. The combination of Arkin’s mild-mannered hysteria and Falk’s crazed affability is utterly inspired. Both actors had long careers filled with any number of highlights but if I had to pick a single favorite performance for each of them, I would almost certainly cite their contributions to this films as their respective high-water marks. Although the film is a star vehicle for the two of them, it is filled with a number of good performances in the smaller roles—even the completely straight-laced turns are nicely done—and the appearance by the late Libertini in the late innings gives the film just the final jolt of madcap energy it needs that you have to admire Arkin and Falk for somehow keeping a straight face (more or less) while sharing the screen with him.

With the critical and commercial success of “The In-Laws,” one might have thought that people would be eager to continue pairing Arkin and Falk on the screen, but they would only co-star in one more film together, “Big Trouble,” a 1985 comedic riff on the film noir classic “Double Indemnity,” written by Bergman. If you are wondering why you haven’t heard of this one, it is because Bergman was also the original director until he was fired partway through the production and replaced by that well-known comedic genius John Cassavetes (in what would prove to be his last directorial effort)—Bergman took his name of the script and the movie itself tanked. Beyond that, Arkin and Falk would continue on with their careers as two of the most beloved actors of their time: Arkin would go on to win a long-overdue Oscar for “Little Miss Sunshine”; Falk would return to the role of Columbo before passing away in 2011. Hiller would go on to direct a number of films before finally retiring from the business in 2006, but nothing he did before or after “The In-Laws” would come close to topping that achievement.

As for Andrew Bergman, he would have a frustrating career. Two years after “The In-Laws,” he made his directorial debut with the screwball farce “So Fine,” which was concerned with a professor (Ryan O’Neal) who saves his father’s fashion business by inadvertently inventing bottomless jeans. He wrote the screenplays for the amusing “Oh God, You Devil” (1984) and the Chevy Chase hit “Fletch” (1985), but did not attempt to direct another film until 1990, when he convinced Marlon Brando (apparently a huge fan of “The In-Laws”) to spoof his famous performance in “The Godfather” opposite Matthew Broderick in the delightful comedy “The Freshman.” He contributed to the screenplay for the soap spoof “Soapdish” (1991), and wrote and directed the hit romantic comedies “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992) and “It Can Happen to You” (1994). Disaster struck when he directed an adaptation of Carl Hiassen’s novel “Striptease” in 1996, a star vehicle for Demi Moore that had the misfortune to come out at a time when audience apathy towards her was at its peak, especially when news of her record-breaking acting fee got out. That film is undeniably awkward but nowhere near as bad as its reputation might suggest—Burt Reynolds has a turn as a lecherous politician that is one of the funniest performances of his career. His last film credit to date, directing the Jacqueline Susann biopic “Isn’t She Great?” (2000), is actually as bad as its reputation—though it disappeared so quickly that it barely had time to garner a reputation—and since then, nothing. Well, there was the credit he received a few years later when Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided to remake “The In-Laws” with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks in the roles played by Falk and Arkin. Despite the presence of one of the funniest people in the world in one of the leads, the result was a mirth-free mess that only underscored just what a tremendous achievement the original film really was.

As for this Blu-ray itself, the disc offers up all the main extras from the film’s long-ago initial DVD release, including a funny and interesting audio commentary featuring Bergman, Arkin, Falk and Hiller reminiscing and kibitzing throughout. Among the new supplements, there is an interview with Arkin that goes into more depth about his experiences with the film; “In Support of 'The In-Laws,'” another interview featurette focusing on supporting cast members, Ed Begley Jr., Nancy Dussault, James Hong and David Paymer; a booklet containing the aforementioned memoir by Hiller; and an appreciation of the film by comedy writer Stephen Winer. Of course, for most fans of the film, just the chance to have it on Blu-ray will be enough to inspire them to rush out and get a copy. For those that do, all I can say is, “Serpentine!”

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

We Grown Now
Blood for Dust
Dusk for a Hitman
Stress Positions
Hard Miles


comments powered by Disqus