So, “comedy sequels” right?
In the modern era, funny films have become almost non-filmic, layering a thick slab of verbal humor on top of antiseptic, unfeeling visual composition and also-ran technique. The worst of the lot don’t even get us that far, barely even introducing “writing” to the mixture and crutching themselves entirely on the often game talents of an actor or two. Comedy sequels, meanwhile, are bottom-of-the-ladder throwaway gags at best, not so much non-filmic as anti-filmic abominations. That they tend to run through the predecessor’s jokes is the least of their problems. That they tend to be actively painful is probably higher up on the list.
Addams Family Values is a comedy sequel with a difference, and that difference is director Barry Sonnenfeld. Not only Barry Sonnenfeld, of course. Writer Paul Rudnick’s screenplay has a wonderfully droll eye for ’60s sitcoms and a deliciously sideways slant on how to turn middlebrow Americana on its head, and it provides game food for a veritable cornucopia of scenery-tearing actors playing to their ostentatious, blistering best. It’s not quite agitprop, but for a blockbuster comedy with a relatively girthy budget, it plays shockingly recklessly with its audience and comes close to holding its knives right to their face. A great deal of this critique is openly part of the text of the film, with a sub-plot featuring two of Charles Addams’ pugnaciously demented Old Money family members, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), going to town on the smarmy corporatized Main Street Americana icon that is the summer camp.
But if Addams Family Values had only been that screenplay and those actors, it would have been merely a pretty solid dusted-off sequel. What really earns the film its pedestal is its scorchingly cinematic nature. Obviously, the set-design-o-rama style of the film (particularly the wonderful barely-contained-cage-of-monsters perversion of the American aristocracy aesthetic in the Addams Family mansion itself) comes hand-in-hand with Sonnenfeld’s previous experience warping good-time Americana working as the director of photography on the early Coen Brothers masterpieces like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing. That was back when the two-headed director was still defining its style, creating spunkier, scrappier works of genre-fried postmodernism. This pre-directorial tenure allowed Sonnenfeld an innately visual eye and an understanding for how visuals could tell a story in different genres, and the way he packs every frame in with bluster and bug-eyed kooks speaks to a gift for composition here.
As such, the film is at play in the fields of the middle class even down to the slightest details of set and costuming which pervert genial Americana from the latter half of the twentieth century, bubble this gee-whiz capitalist suburbia up in a stew of mayhem and malcontent, and then twist it further by playing the newly macabre variation on the norms of everyday society with a tormented grin. Everything about the aesthetic of the film comes together in a delectably composed but always free-enough mise-en-scene that sparkles with a nervous twitch in its smile. Something about it just feels naughty; when so many comedies take the easy way out by over-selling the laughs, Addams Family Values has the full-chested throat and the sinister, sly sense of silence of a speakeasy straight out of the roaring twenties, a time period that the characters reflect and undercut.
A visual sense is essential for an Addams Family film anyway; the Charles Addams original comic strips were almost entirely studies in minimalist illustration and implication, prodding around with the American aristocracy and the American bourgeoisie in equal measure and trusting the audience to know where to look in the frame to fill in the blanks. Sonnenfeld clearly understands the nature of the material, and furthermore, he clearly seems to adore it, finding the roots of the comic in American animation and drawing out the connections to Max Fleischer and Chuck Jones. Addams Family Values is not only happy to be a visual film, but downright bellicose about it; it is a statement to comedy art forms of old, and a knowing encapsulation and modernization of what made humor in the 1930s and 1940s, especially animated humor, so plucky and sweet without ever losing its acidic, caustic edge.
Sonnenfeld doesn’t only call on animation though. The way he looks to screwball comedy, as well, keeping the film and the characters and the camera barking at a fever pitch, reflects an understanding of Middle American cinema history that he proceeds to use and tweak on end. Sonnenfeld is sticking it to this society by gleefully using its film genres to subvert what those films stood for, appropriately tackling everything from the aforementioned screwball material to the Old Dark House genre populated by the effervescent likes of James Whale . Even the narrative structure of the screenplay is a subversion of sorts, running away from building-and-falling action for a distinctly episodic form that throws a bone into the middlebrow Americana storytelling logic, thus further disrupting normalcy and having its way with the middle class by challenging not only their identities but the art forms they use to express those identities.
Which says nothing of the frequently wonderful performances, generally played in the out-of-the-park, operatic zone. Raul Julia as patriarch Gomez Addams and Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester are a high-spirited, naughtily gleeful twofer, manically zipping from pose to pose and further loosening up the daffy, limber material. Yet the highlight is Angelica Houston as dour housewife Morticia, deliberately underselling the dialogue as a blast of frost cutting through the boundless energy of the rest of the film and turning all that dripping energy into frozen daggers. Sonnenfeld clearly understands how essential she is to the production, and he wields her husky depressiveness as a comedown from the relentless mania of the pure pageantry flying up all over her. She takes up the mantle of an adjective, wrapping herself around every other noun in the film, twisting them, and warping them to her liking. Juxtaposed against Julia, it is the epitome of fire and ice locked in the coil of wonderfully combative disharmony and loving every second of it.
It isn’t quite Bride of Frankenstein in terms of screwy, production design pieces with an eye for gleeful perversion and anti-antiseptic storytelling. But for the mid ’90s, the golden age of high-consumerist corpulent commodification, it’ll do. At the very least, it took Hollywood’s money and ran away with it, commencing with all sorts of nasty and naughty costuming and production design misdemeanors along the way. We aren’t the intended audience ( I suspect that this audience included Sonnenfeld and all of the actors generally just having a ball and amusing themselves, deciding to film and release their weekend party to legitimize themselves). But, even so, they are having so much fun it all just coalesces into something magnetic and spritzy in the end. It isn’t necessarily deep per-se, but when the spritz is this cavalier and off-the-wall, what else can you do but submit to it?