The In-Laws is a ridiculous comedy, but the nifty thing is that it keeps you guessing about precisely how ridiculous it's willing to get. It also keeps you guessing about what kind of movie it is, starting as a crime movie, shifting into cutesy domestic comedy and then... well, you'll see.
Our characters are Manhattan dentist Sheldon “Shelly” Kornpett (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine) and businessman Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk, Columbo)... well, at least Vince claims to be a businessman. In an early scene, we watch a group of masked men hijack an armored vehicle, steal some mysterious items (leaving lots of cash behind) and bring those items to Vince. What's he up to? Is he some sort of professional thief? Is this an elaborate scheme related to his office job? We're left in the dark.
Anyway, Shelly's daughter is engaged to be married to Vince's son, so the families inevitably decide to get together for dinner and start the process of getting to know each other. Throughout the meal, Shelly is puzzled by Vince's erratic behavior, as the latter wanders off to the basement to make a mysterious long-distance phone call, throws a temper tantrum when someone makes a joke at his expense and generally just acts peculiar. The next day, Vince shows up at Shelley's office, offering an apology and making a strange request: Vince wants Shelley to sneak into his office building and remove some items from a safe. Shelley reluctantly agrees, and ends up getting dragged into a situation that grows more bizarre with each passing hour.
Falk's performance is a wonderfully unique piece of work; just unpredictable and erratic enough to give us ammunition for any theory we may have about the character. It's a big, goofy performance that generates a lot of laughs, but Arkin delivers a significant assist: his deadpan facial expressions – almost all of which are subtle variations on “what the hell have I gotten myself into?” - help every gag stick the landing. There's a broad, simple way to play both of these characters (desperate panic for Shelly, noisy bluster for Vince), but both actors have a knack for going left when you expect them to go right (or at least going serpentine).
The film is simple from a technical standpoint: Arthur Hiller shoots much of the film like a TV movie, and none of the big action sequences (and there are more than you might suspect) are staged with much imagination. Still, the characters are so much fun to hang out with that the virtues of the filmmaking become a secondary concern.
The film was writer Andrew Bergman's follow-up to Blazing Saddles (he co-wrote that script with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor and others, but wrote the story himself). This is a very different sort of thing, but there are moments in the third act that remind you of that film's cheerful absurdity (particularly an extended sequence involving a bonkers dictator played by Richard Libertini). Like a number of other Bergman scripts, the story is one of those things that starts out in a fairly conventional place and slowly begins to wander into insanity (The Freshman and Soapdish come to mind).
The In-Laws isn't quite a comedy classic – it's a little too shapeless – but it's still a thoroughly entertaining flick featuring a pair of top-notch performances from its two leads (plus, it's much better than the limp 2003 remake). Most comedies let you know where they're going pretty early on and hope to make you laugh along the way. This one gives you absolutely no clue where it's going and knows that you'll laugh when you find out.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 1979