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Go ahead and have some fun, attend the nuptials

By R.H. Joseph

The bottom line is, guffaws abound. "The In-Laws," a light-hearted bit of fluff devoid of pretensions, was created to make you laugh and fulfills this singular responsibility.

Essentially a fish-out-of-water story, of the fathers of the soon-to-be-wed (a fundamentally irrelevant subplot), one is a gallant, devil-may-care CIA operative, and the other a timid podiatrist.

Michael Douglas plays Steve Tobias, a government agent who doesn't know the meaning of fear (and he's a wonderful straight man to boot).

So adept is Tobias at balancing the demands of the free world with his responsibilities as a father, he arranges for some super-spy shenanigans to coincide with his son's wedding. In the process he jets from here to there and back, eludes murderous thugs of the worst sort, and well-intentioned cops as well. All the while he demonstrates an unruffled adjustment to life-threatening danger characteristic of a certain British Naval Commander known for his penchant for shaken martinis and a Walther PPK.

While the glint in Douglas's eye lacks the scintillating revelation of whimsy so pronounced in his youth, his responsibility for the pervading ambience of humor in the film is abetted by Albert Brooks. The two of them play off each other with the comfortable aplomb of Balki and Cousin Larry and are just as much fun.

Though Brooks plays the same character from film to film, if the chemistry's right he's a hoot. He's a hoot.

Dr. Jerry Peyser (Brooks) is a bona fide head case. He won't fly, tap water must run at least 20 seconds before he'll drink it, any food with which he is unfamiliar is an abomination, and he's changed the caterer for his daughter's wedding a half dozen times. In short, Peyser's the archetypal urban Jewish neurotic so often celebrated by Woody Allen.

While his dialogue offers nothing more than what his fans would expect: dry, self-effacing neurotic one-liners, his deadpan physical humor provides a perfect complement to Douglas's fictitious derring-do.

Due to circumstances beyond his control Peyser finds himself accompanying Tobias while the latter attempts to subvert a dastardly deed being perpetrated by assorted criminals and international arms dealers. Some of this stuff is hilarious.

This hilarity is attenuated by the gifted David Suchet (television's Hercule Poirot) as Thibodoux, a notoriously vicious smuggler who is in the process of resolving some serious personality issues through extended exposure to the philosophies of Deepak Chopra.

Suchet is deliciously detestable, manifesting an abundance of slimy lunatic quirks that stand in pronounced juxtaposition to the repressed blandness of the newest object of his affection, Peyser.

Candace Bergen is also entrusted with contributing to the film's levity but she possesses neither Suchet's acting chops nor is her role as well written.

She portrays Tobias's ex, Judy, and as such is called upon to contribute the sort of predictable spousal friction so often relied upon for a chuckle or two. In this case the role actually distracts from the hijinks displayed by Douglas, Brooks and Suchet. Therefore it is ill-considered.

The film is directed by Andrew Fleming.

Numerous essentially insignificant instances of attempted humor such as those provided by Bergen appear but never really play out. For example, her character is accompanied to the nuptials by a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is to assist the rabbi in the ceremony, unbeknownst to the latter. Moments after the monk's introduction he disappears forever.

What they intended to mine from this situation must have been consigned to the cutting room floor. There is a lot of good material in this film but its editing leaves it unnecessarily slapdash.

Similarly, its finale is unnecessarily slapstick.

Yet though the film could have benefited from better writing and direction and a more talented supporting cast, in the last analysis it doesn't matter. It is still very funny.

Regarding the supporting players, a case in point is the casting of Robin Tunney as Tobias's agent-in-training, Angela Harris. Though cute as a speckled pup (I stole this from Ernest Tubb, but considering Tunney's joyously abundant freckles it seems appropriate), the actor has yet to manifest any noteworthy degree of craft.

That said, she is nevertheless welcome in any film as long as she continues to personify all that men celebrate in young women.

To her credit Tunney has exceeded the typical three-film career arc normally accorded nubile young things once some salacious director has convinced her to get naked in front of his camera. (See Peter Hyams' "End of Days" starring Schwarzenegger. Tunney's nudity is so appallingly gratuitous even a sexist pig like yours truly winds up feeling like a dirty old man.)

Admirably, her goals are apparently loftier than those who simply wish to be a movie star. In 1997 the actor appeared in two independent endeavors of artistic merit: "Niagra, Niagra" and "Julian Po." Look for both on IFC (Independent Film Channel), the best television station around for those with discriminating tastes.

While these two dramas are difficult to watch, "The In-Laws" is just the opposite. Despite its shortcomings, guffaws are guaranteed.

Celluloid memories: Michael Douglas made a classic romantic comedy while the fires of madness still burned brightly in his eyes. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, "Romancing the Stone" (1984) also stars Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. For teens and adults alike, it is simply a marvelous romp. Albert Brooks directed a bit of satiric fluff, "Defending Your Life" (1991) in which he also starred along with Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant and Buck Henry. As I said, Brooks just keeps doing his thing but sometimes it's quite amusing. Finally, Robin Tunney was in an OK flick primarily for the young at heart, but anyone who enjoys music will find something to like. Directed by Allan Moyle, "Empire Records" (1995) also features performances by Anthony LaPaglia, Liv Tyler, and Renee Zellweger. It may not be that good but it's nice to see these women when they were younger and it's got a kickin' sound track.