Published March 1, 1998
Krippendorf’s Tribe, directed by Todd Holland, is almost as unfunny a comedy as An Alan Smithee Film. Richard Dreyfuss plays James Krippendorf, a professor of anthropology with three children whose wife has recently died. Prostrated by grief he has shut himself up in the house and lived on his research grant until, one day, a young colleague comes to remind him that the lecture in which he is supposed to reveal his research findings to take place that very evening. Panicked because he has not even finished the research—and because the university has just decided to prosecute a colleague who spent a research grant on something other than research—he makes up a New Guinean tribe, which he claims to have discovered, and names it after the first part of his three children’s names: the Shelmickedmu.
The kids, Shelly, Mickey and Edmund, are all unattractive and the teenage daughter, Shelly (Natasha Lyonne) is one of those ghastly Hollywood brats who you know from the beginning is intended to make everything OK for a ditzy parent. You also know that something is desperately wrong when it is Jenna Elfman, the giant pixie of “Dharma and Greg,” who appears as Krippendorf’s junior colleague, Dr. Veronica Micelli. If she is an anthropologist, Meg Ryan is a brain surgeon and Julia Roberts a rocket scientist. And even if she were a convincing academic, the chemistry between her and Dreyfuss, whose dead wife she is obviously designed to replace, is all wrong too.
But most spectacularly wrong of all is the moral of the story. This is a Disney comedy, put out by Buena Vista/Touchstone. Twenty or even ten years ago it would have been taken for granted that the denouement would have to involve the professor ‘fessing up to his lie and being forgiven for it before he marries the beautiful young acolyte. Not a very convincing story, maybe, but what it used to be assumed popular entertainment was there to tell us. The painful moral decision turns out to be not so painful after all, but it justifies and makes safe all the laughter at naughtiness which has come before. No more. The new Disney has bought as heavily in shares in the new nihilism as anyone in Hollywood, and when the imposture looks as if it is about to be exposed the bratty daughter arranges for a New Guinean friend to stage an elaborate charade which will get daddy off the hook.
In other words, the lie works and becomes the foundation of the happiness the heroes can look forward to in the end—which, under the new Disney, consists of their sleeping together without any talk of marriage. So Krippendorf’s backside is covered, and not just with the leaves he dons in a desperate attempt at humor by impersonating a chief of the mythical tribe. Richard Dreyfuss, it must be said, is a real sport to allow himself to appear so embarrassingly ridiculous so as to make a bunch of 12 year olds giggle (I can’t imagine anyone older than that finding it funny). But I wonder if, in the long watches of the night, a little voice doesn’t occasionally whisper in his ear: “You’re getting too old for this!” Certainly the rest of us are.