From Albert Brooks, Discomfort’s a Joy

The Washington Post By Ann Hornaday

Is there an actor alive who can make discomfort as hilarious as Albert Brooks?

Woody Allen comes to mind, and indeed Brooks has often been called Allen’s West Coast obverse. But the comparison doesn’t do justice to Brooks as the original that he is. Happily, Brooks takes center stage in “The In-Laws,” a surprisingly sprightly remake of the 1979 movie starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. Here, Michael Douglas takes on Falk’s role of the high-flying undercover agent, but in the updated version Douglas is mostly a slick, loquacious foil for Brooks’s pained comedy, which gets only funnier as the film gets busier. As an anxious Everyman caught in a whirlwind of international intrigue and ever-escalating action, Brooks is a quietly molten core of hapless, and helplessly funny, midlife angst.

Brooks plays Jerry Peyser, a Chicago podiatrist whose daughter Melissa (Lindsay Sloane) is about to get married to a bright young lawyer named Mark (Ryan Reynolds). A congenital worrier, Jerry has taken the wedding plans upon himself; when the audience first meets him he’s just fired another catering company. “They weren’t caterers,” he explains to his daughter. “It was a man, his wife and some lettuce.” Jerry is also worried about the family Melissa is marrying into: Mark’s father, Steve (Michael Douglas), has canceled several dinner dates with Jerry and his wife, and he seems to be chronically absent from his son’s life.

Mark has told the Peysers that his dad works for Xerox selling copiers, but an earlier scene has revealed otherwise. In a cold opening straight out of the James Bond playbook, Steve in a few minutes makes contact with an arms dealer in Prague, outruns Interpol agents in a high-speed chase, blows up a small airplane and pilots his own Learjet to safety — which in this case is one last prenuptial dinner with the Peysers in Chicago. But Steve still has some work to do, and as he tries to squeeze various meetings and phone calls into the wedding weekend, he’ll wind up bringing Jerry along on an international arms deal, an FBI investigation, a parachute trip through the canyons of downtown Chicago, a ride on a jet ski while eluding a missile and — not least — a trip to France on Barbra Streisand’s private plane.

Fans of Arthur Hiller’s original “In-Laws” will recognize the rough outline of the plot of that underrated comedy, but director Andrew Fleming and writers Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon have taken enough liberties with Andrew Bergman’s original script that the new version doesn’t suffer from being merely a pale imitation. Douglas and Brooks generate terrific comic chemistry, with Douglas cheerfully donning his “Romancing the Stone” character, only this time with a bit of the impending creakiness of the writer he played so well in “Wonder Boys.” His is a cocksure, suave and very graceful performance in what is essentially a straight-man role for Brooks’s far more attention-getting worrywart.

It’s one of the pleasures of “The In-Laws” that the nebbishy Brooks actually upstages the more conventionally charismatic Douglas. Both handle the role reversal with class and restraint, even in a movie whose set pieces include car chases, explosions, a sodden wedding scene and a rehearsal dinner featuring K.C. and the Sunshine Band. In other words, the humor and special effects here are about as broad as they can get, but they’re delivered with a sly wink. When Steve takes the Peysers to a Vietnamese restaurant, he explains that he and the proprietor did some “copier-related work together in Vietnam.” He orders for the table, and a huge snake arrives as the main course; the squeamish Jerry refuses to partake, noting sarcastically that “my food is still eating.”

In between courses, Steve takes a meeting with one of his contacts in the men’s room, where Jerry overhears their conversation. The coincidence will lead him to the possession of some fissile nuclear waste, which in turn puts him on Streisand’s plane. (The filmmakers have a particularly good time with this plot twist, outfitting the aircraft in Tiffany glass, loads of nail polish, and piped-in music featuring “The Way We Were.”) Once in France, Jerry meets his nemesis — and best comic foil — in the person of Jean-Pierre Thibodoux, a sexually confused black marketeer played by David Suchet in the film’s most scene-stealing turn. Convinced by Steve that Jerry is actually a famous assassin named the Fat Cobra, Jean-Pierre takes an immediate liking to his homicidal superior. He eventually succeeds not only in luring Jerry into a bubbly Jacuzzi but also in persuading him to wear a barely there red thong, the movie’s most memorable visual joke.

Don’t look for anything more high-minded than that in “The In-Laws.” This is a movie that starts silly and just gets sillier — at one point Candice Bergen shows up with a Buddhist monk — but its laughs are sweet-natured, and Heaven knows the lead players earn every one. Even though “The In-Laws” is a modest comedy, with luck it will be a big hit. Maybe then Brooks won’t stay away so long.

The In-Laws (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for suggestive humor, language, drug references and violence.