The In-Laws (1979) (Blu-ray)
(The Criterion Collection, 7.5.2016)
Arthur Hiller wasn’t anyone’s idea of a great auteur. His filmography was erratic at best and his visual approach tended to be a little clumsy, particularly in the latter half of his career. But there’s a very good reason he managed to consistently work with Hollywood’s most accomplished actors, occasionally generating comedy classics like The Americanization of Emily or Silver Streak: he was an unfailingly good-natured person who knew how to build the confidence of his collaborators. The ultimate example of this may be 1979’s The In-Laws, and the extras on Criterion’s new Blu-ray are a testament to the hard-to-spot skills that distinguished Hiller -- who died on Wednesday at the age of 92 -- from his peers.
In addition to the trailer and the commentary that were previously included on the 2003 DVD, this Blu-ray includes two substantial new features: a 25-minute interview with star Alan Arkin and a 35-minute featurette about the making of The In-Laws. In the latter, Ed Begley Jr., Nancy Dussault, James Hong, and David Paymer reflect on Hiller’s virtues as a person and a director. Begley says he loved and revered the filmmaker, while Paymer explains that Hiller earned those feelings by being a kind, gentle person to everyone on the set. This kind of touchy feely praise doesn’t usually come up on Criterion releases, but it seems that Hiller’s conduct as a person was at the core of his success with actors.
Another recurring theme in this featurette is the importance of taking comedy seriously. Both Begley and Hong remark that the film’s humour grew out of the decision to play all the comedy straight. By taking even the most ridiculous scenes seriously, they were able to make the absurdity of the script that much more impactful, rather than allow it to be overshadowed or confused by silly acting. Begley and Paymer both explain that they were enormous fans of Arkin going into the shoot and Paymer can still vividly recall a life-changing compliment he received from Arkin -- about the way he chewed gum.
Now 82, Arkin clearly has fond memories of The In-Laws. Throughout his interview, he breaks into laughter while remembering key scenes and compares the film favorably to his other career highlights. He also explains the film’s unlikely origins. After seeing Peter Falk on a talk show, Arkin pitched him on the idea of making a film together. When Falk agreed, Arkin reached out to young screenwriter Andrew Bergman because of his high regard for Bergman’s Blazing Saddles script, which Arkin insists is 50 times funnier than the finished film. Fortunately, Arkin felt similar enthusiasm for Bergman’s The In-Laws script… and just about everything that followed. This kind of unguarded passion is rare in interviews, but it’s a testament to the power of Hiller’s positive thinking. He left his collaborators with the kind of joyful memories that last a lifetime -- and, every once in a while, the movies followed suit. -- Jonathan Doyle