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The In-Laws

Director: Andrew Fleming
Cast: Michael Douglas, Albert Brooks, Robin Tunney, Ryan Reynolds, Candice Bergen, David Suchet

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 23 May 2003; 2003)

Always the Bridesmaid

Steve Tobias (Michael Douglas) works for the CIA. Or so he says. He might be lying, though it hardly seems to matter; either way, he makes trouble for everyone around him while he comes out looking quite snappy. He wears dapper jackets and tuxes and his hair rarely musses, even as he leaps and kicks his way through dicey action-spy-type situations in exotic places like Prague. These folks around him initially include his haplessly dull son Mark (Ryan Reynolds, a.k.a. Van Wilder) and his hothead of a partner/mentee Angela (Robin Tunney). They soon come to include Mark’s soon-to-be father-in-law, a podiatrist named Jerry (Albert Brooks).


As its title suggests, the crux of Andrew Fleming’s remake of The In-Laws concerns Steve and Jerry’s (mostly predictable) bonding efforts. These commence when Jerry stumbles on one of Steve’s missions in the men’s room at a Chinese restaurant where the about-to-be in-laws are getting acquainted. Needless to say, Jerry is unnerved when he walks in on what looks Steve have sex in a stall turns into Steve kicking some slick-spy-guy’s ass. Jer (as Steve likes to call him) tries to hightail it out of the bathroom, the restaurant, and the impending familial union; feeling guilty for being egregiously absent dad until now, Steve makes it his personal mission to bring Jer back into line.


This leads to a series of hijinks, all stemming from mistakes or Steve flying by the seat of his pants. FBI agents hot on Steve’s trail (they say he’s gone rogue) pick up Jer, unknowingly carrying a bit of fissile nuclear material that Steve’s temporarily stashed in his pocket. Steve rescues Jer, then drags him along on a subsequent jaunt to France on Barbra Streisand’s private plane, which Steve has “borrowed.” Here Jer meets Steve’s psychotic arms dealer buddy Jean-Pierre (David Suchet), who politely explains to his guests that he’s been reading Deepak Chopra and learning how to “forgive,” even as he shoots down a dishonest employee.


Jean-Pierre takes a liking to Jer, a joke that wears out pretty quickly. Like most all of Albert Brooks’ characters, Jer is one-note—nattery, nervous, and judgmental, preferring to keep his routines just so (and even so, has somehow raised a go-with-the-flowish daughter, Melissa [Lindsay Sloane]), Steve is gregarious and self-confident to the max, careening through his paternal duties just as he does his top-secret exploits, without much attention to details because he knows everything will work out, knowing that Angela—part cat-suited assassin, part copilot, part weapons expert, and part secretary—can always rearrange some world-hanging-in-the-balance meeting at the last minute.


Indeed, Steve and Angela have a special relationship, less the usual May-December business than a competition. And she’s loud about her dissatisfaction, complaining that she’s tired of being “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” (How coincidental that she uses this phrase, given that Steve’s son is about to be the bridegroom! Or not: the coincidence comes back to bite Steve just as he thinks he’s got clear sailing ahead.) Angela’s flinty attitude goes a long way to making The In-Laws pleasurable, even occasionally surprising: her offer to shoot the wholly annoying Jerry is only one welcome instance of her penchant for smart-ass excess.


Angela’s cool aversion to stereotype is easily The In-Laws’ most valuable asset, and a likely result of mutual respect between director Andrew Fleming and Tunney, also in evidence in their previous collaboration, the clever witchy-girls flick, The Craft, in 1996. Also to his enduring credit, Fleming made 1999’s deliciously intelligent and girl-powery Dick, with Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst as a couple of high schoolers who collide with Dick Nixon. All this is to say that Fleming has revealed a knack for satire and reverence for girls, both only intermittently visible in The In-Laws.


Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon based their script on Andrew Bergman’s 1979 original (for the film he also directed, starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk). Fans of the first film made clear their disapproval when the updating was announced was announced. But this version would have trouble even if it didn’t have a beloved precursor to live down—the jokes are uneven, the types are obvious, the soundtrack is noisy. And Candice Bergen, who shows up for a couple of very painful scenes as Judy, Steve’s ex, looks oddly out of place, like she’s just walked off the set of Miss Congeniality (2000), where she cahooted with William Shatner to slightly better effect.


Judy directs much venom toward her ex (“Steve Tobias is an emotional fascist!”), but he lets it roll off with a peculiar grace. For all of his self-love, Steve is—quite surprisingly, given Douglas’ usual on-screen pomposity—the lightest on his feet of all the characters assembled here. A self-loving enigma, Steve recalls any number of other movie spies (James Bond, most obviously, as he globe-trots, parachutes off tall buildings, and arranges for K.C. and the Sunshine Band to play a pre-wedding soirée because he’s so super-well connected. All this is predictable, as is the fathers’ reconciliation, with their kids and each other. Perhaps it’s also predictable that Angela, The In-Laws’ most delightful surprise, is ejected most unceremoniously.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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