Central Intelligence is, I am told, a movie about two buddies, one domesticated and the other an epidemic, where one is just maybe an insane rogue agent. Let us look at a much better such film that is mostly forgotten today (and, I must admit, one that is cartoonishly better at evoking the off-kilter is-he-or-isn’t-he-crazy tension that the 2016 half-heartedly, impersonally wishes to suggest).
Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, even Lemmon and whatever straight-man dared tempt Lemmon’s immortal hurricane of manic charisma, all are enshrined in the pantheon of the comic pas de deux. Watching Arthur Hiller’s The In-Laws, Falk and Arkin temporarily feel like the greatest missed opportunity in the two-fisted lexicon of angel-and-devil comedy. They were a one-and-done deal in an over-and-out film that doesn’t so much recapture as reorient classic screwball efforts with a more unhinged ’70s Manhattan edge. Which is, in essence, another match made in heaven: the loose, free-wheeling inertia of the New Hollywood and the dexterity of the Old Hollywood, punching into each other with a recklessness that is becoming of both.
Wild and woolly, The In-Laws is a sort of comedy of errors, a post-Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller shambolically blown out into an unpretentious comic desecration of the assumption of milquetoast middle-class complacency. With Alan Arkin playing a middlebrow type of a New York dentist whose daughter is on the eve of marriage, his sense-of-self is disrupted and debased when his soon-to-be-son-in-law’s father, played by Peter Falk, turns out to be more or less disastrously on the edge of his capacity for reason. In fits and spurts, the film reveals that Falk’s character robbed a bank in hopes of instigating a convoluted plot to discover another crew of rapscallions looking to decimate US currency and throw the country, and possibly the world, into a fertile panic. And, naturally, with Falk’s character remaining cool-as-ice about the whole affair, totally insouciant like it’s just another part of his day, Arkin’s character becomes wrapped up in the whole kerfuffle as well.
A wrinkle or an inverse where the straight man (Falk in full-on lecturer mode) is the one who disrupts and unhinges the comic type, The In-Laws is a little like the morally-questionable Jimmy Stewart Hitchcock character teasing the goody-two-shoes Cary Grant Hitchcock character, if both were flustered everyday schlubs of course. Actually, I’m not even sure if the film has the sense or propriety to segment the characters off into types, with Falk’s sanity on the line and Arkin’s nearly following Falk’s. The roles adopted by the two, their relative essences as people, are slippery and seldom sediment into easy comic types, which is the Midas touch that sequesters The In-Laws into its own realm of comedy-verging-on-pandemonium.
Falk here ignites his sublimely irrational screen presence – all false wheedling countenances and flustered territorialism and befuddled, screwy constructed-incompetence – to the edge of sanity, recalculating the sheep-in-wolf-clothing Columbo character into something more transgressively devious and maniacal. Ingratiating as a way of scheming, he defuses tension with his aww-shucks, soft-spoken voice and generous, loquacious hand gestures only to derail his defusing by twisting the voice and the gestures into something more harried and demented. His genial, almost professorly habit of explaining everything initially seems hang-dog and soon enough conspires to reveal a man possibly on the edge of himself.
Arkin, in contrast, stages a chemical reaction with the almost violently calm Falk, doing much the same thing as his counterpart by accentuating his usually genial screen persona toward psychosis and madness. Certainly, the broad rituals of the character are all Arkin – his astringent voice, a stare that seems to hyperventilate – but this version of the character is tweaked to the point of near-misanthropy, with a fractured core just waiting to be unwound. Together, the two are a Janus head of falsely accused frightfulness, the crux of a crucible of low-to-the-ground anarchy that is all the more effective because it doesn’t ever implode into desperation or joke-a-minute comic imperiousness. The humor, instead, either trickles in from the cracks of the two characters (and they’re both all cracks) or sidewinds into them unexpectedly, a perfect encapsulation of milquetoast domesticity sand-blasted by an unraveling world.
As with most comic pairings, the actors are the stars here, imbuing the film with a nervous, knotted energy that feels jittery rather than complacent (there’s no sense that they had to play ball on a probationary period to earn anyone’s favor). Andrew Bergman’s screenplay is slinky and engraved with situational bedlam, but it never forces jokes onto the characters or abuses them. The largest well of humor is reactive, rather than prescriptive as with most comedies; the sense is that the script isn’t pilfering the people for jokes but providing a background for humor to unearth itself from within.
Meanwhile, Arthur Hiller’s direction is laid-back but not anonymous or absent, shuttling between restful, placid camera stillnesses and sudden jolts of entropy (there’s a wonderful foreground-background tête-à-tête with Falk, restful in the front of a diner, and Arkin, spiraling out of control outside, that uses visual contrast and spatial disharmony in inspired ways). There’s little overtly composed about the style but the ostensibly mundane nature eventually reveals something more disarmingly insouciant, even ramshackle, which is a nice, if not revelatory, accompaniment to two everyday dudes more or less splaying out in every which direction around Manhattan and Central America trying to figure themselves out.
By the end, the film is subsumed in an almost demonically low-key nature, like a bystander watching the mania rather than an active participant. The film schleps around scenes with edits that are few and far between when we expect something primped for timeliness and immediacy. At times, it feels like something Falk’s friend and frequent collaborator John Cassavetes might have made if he was less devoutly independent and wanted to go Hollywood. Maybe it even hints a little at the wandering-about-New-York Cassavetes and Falk-starrer Mikey and Nicky, a murderously simple, dazzlingly, deceptively complex semi-parody of the films the two guys made together. But I won’t equate The In-Laws with a theoretical major league debut for that film’s writer-director, Elaine May, since we have evidence of what the Hollywood mandate can do to an independent talent with like her with Ishtar, among the most critically and commercially lambasted motion pictures ever released.
Anyway, The In-Laws is a jumble and a muddle of a film, but a spirited one about jumbles and muddles; the autograph from JFK on Falk’s desk, stating “at least we tried”, might be the appropriate catchphrase for the film, and statement of its worth. With The In-Laws, trying is enough. It has the should-be-disastrous sloppiness of a dress rehearsal with none of the screws tightened, but with a narrative about untightening screws let loose across New York and Central America, the tone feels right. Adding a dose of screwy, screw-loose deadpan to the screwball – with the characters and the direction mostly underplaying every line and shot – unfurls the screenplay even further, like a screwball comedy invading domesticity and creating a confused film with people who don’t know how to react properly. Rather than imbibing in the mania, the only outlet they have is to treat it with the workaday simplicity of just trying to get by with their sanity intact. When life becomes bedlam, bedlam becomes potently quotidian.