A Modern Screwball Comedy: The In-Laws (’79)

THE IN-LAWS, Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, 1979, (c) Warner Brothers / Courtesy: Everett Collection

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Weddings can be stressful. The planning of the actual event, along with facing the responsibilities surrounding a life-long commitment to another person, creates both an exciting and terrifying experience for the couple involved. But all of the wedding nonsense can’t compare to the stress of the couple’s parents meeting for the first time. In Arthur Hiller’s 1979 comedy The In-Laws, we witness this first meeting, over an awkward dinner filled with tall tales and bizarre behavior. Alan Arkin is Sheldon “Shelly” Kornpett, a successful dentist whose daughter is a day or two away from tying the knot. Shelly is supportive of his daughter and her fiancée, but has doubts about his daughter’s future father-in-law, Vince Ricardo, played by Peter Falk; an enigmatic character who has yet to set aside the time to meet the Kornpett family. Shelly has concerns about Vince, specifically in relation to his career as a so-called international consultant. After receiving a bit of unsolicited advice from one of his dental patients, Shelly is convinced that Vince is a shady character and is seriously considering calling the wedding off altogether.

At the start of the weekend’s wedding festivities, Shelly and his wife invite their future in-laws over for dinner. Shelly is skeptical that Vince will show up, fueling his unsettled feeling about the entire wedding. More than an hour after the start of the dinner date, Vince and his wife arrive, along with their son, with apologies and hugs. For a moment, it seems like everything is going to go just fine between the Kornpetts and Ricardos and then Vince starts regaling the Kornpetts with stories of his various work related travels, for a job that still sounds a bit suspicious. When recounting a story about “giant, beaked, baby-stealing tsetse flies,” carrying off small children deep in the South American rain forest, it’s so blatantly obvious to everyone else at the table that he’s full of it. And not only does he have a flair for the dramatic, Vince might be slightly insane. He’s lovable, but completely unhinged. There is something endearing about this eccentric character, but Shelly’s fears are confirmed and he attempts to call off the wedding. Shelly’s daughter, Barbara (Penny Peyser), reassures her father that while a bit “off,” Vince is sweet and that there’s absolutely nothing to be worried about. Of course, Barbara is wrong—there is something very concerning and mysterious about Vince’s business dealings. From secretive phone calls in the basement, to contradictory stories and obvious lies, Shelly suspects that Vince is involved in some sort of criminal activity and for the next two hours, viewers are thrown head first into a confusing, hysterical adventure.

The In-Laws is a hilarious send-up of the classic Hollywood screwball comedy, an impressive feat considering the boundary-pushing aesthetic of post-Production Code filmmaking and its obsession with more shocking comedy. The film follows a familiar format: an eccentric personality draws a milquetoast character out of his routine, putting him in situations he’d never dream of being involved with, opening his mind to the world around him and giving some much-needed perspective on life. Throwing a couple of newly acquainted fathers together, both with drastically different personalities, into ridiculous and dangerous situations makes for a hilarious story. While certainly a product of the time and similar in comedic style to other great 1970s comedies, such as 1979’s The Jerk (one of my favorite films of all-time), The In-Laws really owes much of its inspiration to those earlier screwball comedies. The film is this weird mix of The Odd Couple (1968), with a little Bringing Up Baby (1938) and To Be or Not to Be (1942).

THE IN-LAWS, Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, 1979, (c) Warner Brothers / Courtesy: Everett Collection

What makes The In-Laws so funny is that for most of the film we don’t know who is telling the truth. Is Vince who he says he is? Is he really a CIA operative trying to bust up an international money laundering scheme? Surely no one would disclose such information…except anything is possible when Vince is involved. He’s endearing, even when he recklessly throws Shelly into deadly situations against his will. At the end of their unexpected adventure, Shelly and Vince are the guests of a South American dictator who has been identified as a key player in this laundering ring. For a few brief moments, Shelly appears to be finally letting go of his uptight, cautious personality, only to have the rug pulled out from under him, and the audience, one more time.

From Peter Falk’s Vince repeatedly commanding that Shelly run “serpentine” to avoid being shot; to a hilarious sequence in General Garcia’s compound (a brilliant performance by the late Richard Libertini); to Shelly’s descent into hysterical madness as a result of being thrown into Vince’s chaotic world, The In-Laws not only captures the essence of the screwball comedy, it perfects it. Truly one of the greatest comedies ever made, and is now being introduced to new audiences with its recent blu-ray release in the Criterion Collection along with its limited engagement on Filmstruck for remainder of September. If you’ve never seen the film, definitely make sure to put it on your watch list. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Jill Blake

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4 Responses A Modern Screwball Comedy: The In-Laws (’79)
Posted By Doug : September 14, 2017 8:00 am

Can’t recall having seen this film, but those two leads-either one could have played either part and been perfect. I recently saw Peter Falk in an old “Have Gun…Will Travel” episode from around 1958-he looked like a teenager, but held his own with the other actors.
I love the screwball comedies-a few years ago thanks to a post on Morlocks I was prompted to buy “Icons of Screwball Comedy, Volumes 1&2″ which have some great ‘smaller’ films that may not be at the level of “Bringing Up Baby” but are fine works and lots of fun. It includes “Too Many Husbands”,a twist on “My Favorite Wife” and many others.

Posted By Mike Doran : September 16, 2017 11:31 am

What I remember most about The In-Laws:

I saw it in the theater four times.
I had to.

There’s one scene in here that got the longest and loudest laugh I’ve ever heard in a movie theater – all four times.

Even at that, I still had to wait until I saw it on videocassette (remember those?) before I could hear the dialog.

Spoiler:
The Scene comes after the shootout on West 53rd Street.
And after Falk and Arkin take the cab back to the dental office -
– and what they found there.

Ever had the experience of already laughing at a scene in a movie – and suddenly feeling that you must laugh even harder at what you’ve just seen?

That was the case with the above-named scene.
All four times in packed movie houses.
And later on at home, where my father, who was going along pretty well in his easy chair, nearly fell out of same at the arrival.
Beyond that – well, you’ve got a link here; everybody, see it for yourselves.

Mention should also be made of John Morris’s music – the first of his scores I’d ever heard in a non-Mel Brooks movie.
When was the last time you saw the audience in the theater stay through the closing credit crawl, just to hear the music?
For reasons unknown and unknowable, they never put out an LP (remember those?) of The In-Laws soundtrack, or I’d have definitely got one.

Any time anyone asks me about favorite movies, The In-Laws always comes first – I just plain like it more than anything else I ever saw, in or out of a theater.

So there too.

Posted By Tolly Devlin : September 17, 2017 1:13 pm

A really funny film. I never thought of it as part of the screwball comedy lineage. but you are correct, it most certainly is a part of that genre. Thanks for the post.

Posted By swac44 : September 21, 2017 9:20 am

To this day, whenever I see a BMW, I immediately think of how much better it would look with flames painted on it.

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