Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week, we’re looking back on films that feature great comedic performances that the Academy didn’t nominate for Best Actor or Best Actress.
The In-Laws (1979)
The In-Laws is a beautiful fluke of a movie, a rare ’70s screwball comedy that starts out nutty and just gets nuttier, until our two male leads are standing blindfolded in front of a firing squad on an island outside Honduras.
It all starts out much more domestically, as the daughter of straitlaced New Jersey-residing dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin) is set to marry the son of mysterious, possibly CIA-connected businessman Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk). Falk channels his considerable and unchartable charisma into the role of Vince, affectionate and unfailingly polite even as he lures Sheldon into outlandish situations that just get more and more dangerous. But Falk’s Vince wouldn’t work nearly so well without Arkin’s bland state of aghast to react against. When the Ricardo family joins the Kornpetts for dinner at the beginning of the movie, Arkin’s suspicious, deadpan response to Vince’s flamboyant tales about tsetse flies the size of eagles (known as “the flamenco dancers of death”) and The Guacamole Act Of 1917 only make the incredible stories funnier.
But soon, Sheldon himself is drawn in, as Vince asks him to run an errand that takes him from a shooting match on the streets of Manhattan (classic line deliveries from Arkin: “Don’t shoot at me! I’m a dentist!” and “Oh god, please don’t let me die on 31st Street”) to a fictional Central American country, where he learns how to run “serpentine” to evade getting shot. An ensuing car chase ends with an overturned truck of banana peels. You can’t get more slapstick than that.
Even as treacherous as all of the adventures are, you can see Sheldon slowly starting to enjoy himself, as Vince is so impossible to dislike. When Vince compliments him on how well he’s handling himself on this mission, Sheldon puffs up considerably. (Vince tells him: “It’s an act of friendship I will remember as long as I live. Which could be about an hour.”) When Vince takes off without him, and Sheldon sees that he’s in danger, the mild-mannered dentist jumps onto the roof of a moving car to save his new friend. Then, Sheldon is so stunned by what he’s done that he becomes the more reckless character, with Vince gradually becoming more cautious.
In a perfect world, the ideal chemistry between Arkin and Falk meant that they would have made a million more movies together. As it was, Falk called The In-Laws the most enjoyable time on a movie set he ever had, mostly crediting director Arthur Hiller. Andrew Bergman’s first movie script (he would go on to pen a similar innocent-guy-gets-caught-up-in-a-caper plot in The Freshman, until torching his career forever with Striptease) was so perfect that even the Second City-trained Arkin noted that there was no need for improv. When a pointless remake came out in 2003, nearly every review pointed how superior the 1979 film had been: Arkin called Falk to compliment him on the fact that he was still getting great reviews for that role, even decades later.
Availability: The In-Laws is available to rent or purchase through the major digital services. It can also be acquired on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon, Netflix, or your local video store/library.