The Remake vs. the Original: Let’s Call It a Draw

Andrew Fleming’s The In-Laws , from a screenplay by Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon, is a remake of Arthur Hiller’s The In-Laws (1979). The original screenplay was written by Andrew Bergman, the writer/director of such moderately amusing farces as So Fine (1981), The Freshman (1990), Soapdish (1991), and Honeymoon in Vegas (1992). Indeed Mr. Bergman’s contribution to The In-Laws has not been lost, as Mr. Fleming et al. openly acknowledge their admiration for the original script-and, in many ways, the remake is as worthy as its predecessor, without the haze of selective nostalgia.

Remakes are invariably a critical bugaboo because they’re presumed to reflect a lack of originality on the part of the filmmakers. My attitude toward remakes tends to be more open; I believe that no movie can truly be “remade,” no matter how slavishly the plot and the characters are copied from the original. But at the risk of sounding cynical, I also believe that no movie is ever completely original to begin with. After all, how different is one heist movie from all the others the vast majority of the time?

Take the “original” 1979 version of The In-Laws . Mr. Bergman’s screenplay owes a lot of its comic force to Neil Simon’s 1965 play, The Odd Couple , and its subsequent movie adaptation, directed by Gene Saks. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon play the messy Oscar Madison, and the fastidious Felix Ungar, two temporarily wifeless roommates whose contentious relationship makes them a parody of an old married couple, but of the same gender, with all that suggests in the way of a gay subtext. Mr. Matthau and Mr. Lemmon made the Oscar and Felix roles their own (at least until Jack Klugman and Tony Randall came along in the Odd Couple TV series) and proceeded to turn the pairing into a personal franchise with its own sequel.

Mr. Bergman’s modification of the Odd Couple formula turns the brawling couple into the respective fathers of a son and daughter on their way to getting hitched. But this transposition is at least as old as the 1929 play and movie Abie’s Irish Rose , with its warring Jewish and Irish-Catholic patriarchs. So, as I stated before, there is little in movies that is new-especially after more than a century of cinema.

In the 1979 The In-Laws , Peter Falk plays a loose-cannon C.I.A. agent to Alan Arkin’s anxious dentist. In the remake, it’s Michael Douglas playing the loose-cannon C.I.A. agent to Albert Brook’s initially uptight podiatrist. Given that the original usually earns extra points for arriving on the scene first, I have to say that my own comparison of the two films-both of which I’ve seen recently-leads me to call the contest a draw. First, the leads: Mr. Falk is much shorter, dumpier and more whimsical than Mr. Douglas, who is more the action-hero type of C.I.A. agent. Mr. Arkin as the podiatrist is “straighter” and more realistic as a comic presence than Mr. Brooks’ more stylized, almost cartoonish representation of a repressed control freak. Mr. Falk seems less smug than Mr. Douglas, and that yields more uncertainty and suspense to the original film, whereas Mr. Brooks gets more laughs from his boisterous behavior than Mr. Arkin gets from his long lapses into catatonia.

Another big difference: Mr. Bergman’s 1979 screenplay is more politically risqué, with sly digs at J.F.K.’s misadventure in the Bay of Pigs and the U.S.’s economic imperialism in Honduras (the country’s main thoroughfare is called the “United Fruit Company Highway”). By contrast, the anti-terrorist plot of the remake is comfortably conformist. Whereas the Treasury Department provided the law-and-order pranks in 1979, it’s the F.B.I. who suffers the pratfalls in the second go-round.

A bizarre addition to the new In-Laws is its proliferation of gay-bashing jokes. In the original film, Richard Libertini’s Honduran dictator, an aspiring ventriloquist with a Señor Wences–style hand puppet, is certainly strange, but not even subliminally queer; in the remake, David Suchet’s purse-lipped French arms dealer is stereotypically gay and even makes a prolonged pass at the podiatrist-father in the Jacuzzi. Fortunately, Mr. Suchet’s marvelous Hercule Poirot on television will survive untarnished by this single indiscretion.

Everyone seems to remember Mr. Falk shouting “Serpentine, Shelly, serpentine!” as Mr. Arkin dodges hostile fire, but no one seems to remember the sheer tedium of the crude gunplay and endless car chases in the original. What both versions have in common is a tendency to run out of comic steam long before the end of all the mayhem. But that tends to be a recurring problem with the odd-couple genre, in that the initially problematic premise is much more satisfying than the inevitably sentimental solution.

Mr. Fleming’s direction of the remake is on the whole smoother and more precise than Mr. Hiller’s helming of the original. The script for the remake has built up the marital history of the C.I.A. father by giving him a more glamorous, albeit divorced, wife (played by Candace Bergen) and a more emotionally fleshed-out son (Ryan Reynolds). The part of the podiatrist’s daughter, Melissa (Lindsay Sloane), has also been spruced up with a last-minute spasm of jealousy over one of her prospective bridegroom’s previous affairs.

In addition, Robin Tunney lends her considerable charms to the add-on role as the C.I.A. agent’s overachieving subordinate partner in intrigue.

But in the end, both films rise or fall on the joint strength and compatibility of the respective odd couples. As the two C.I.A. agents, Mr. Falk and Mr. Douglas are no strangers either to the goofy side of their characters or to the poker-faced requirements of their devious profession. And it’s hard to imagine two subtler and more creative comic artists than Mr. Arkin and Mr. Brooks in show business. Amazingly, the two versions have hit the casting bull’s-eye twice in 24 years to provide superior entertainment.

From Sir, With Love

Karen Moncrieff’s Blue Car , from her own screenplay, is the writer-director’s first feature film and, as such, it’s remarkably accomplished-sensitively acted, sharply observed, socially aware-and yet ultimately, utterly dismal.

In this spider-snares-the-fly-in-the-web-of-poetry scenario, Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), an English teacher, is the spider, and the fly-or, rather, the butterfly emerging from her cocoon-is the would-be poet Meg (Agnes Bruckner). When we first see Mr. Auster, at work in an Ohio high-school classroom, we immediately know everything there is to know about him: the bleak grayness of a failed literary career covering him like a shroud, the predatory eyes of a scavenger among the young, an invader of inner lives searching for untarnished poetic souls. From the lethargic atmosphere in his classroom, it becomes clear that few, if any, of his students are interested in unveiling their psyches for the soulful striptease of poetic creation. Enter Meg, a vividly vulnerable teenager in the midst of a traumatic family divorce that has left her single mother, Diane (Margaret Colin), struggling to support her and her younger anorexic sister, Lily, with a low-paying job and infrequent child-support contributions from her ex-husband.

Meg gives as good as she gets from her often impatient and short-tempered mother, the result being a house in perpetual uproar. The controlling metaphor in Meg’s poetry is the blue car her father drove away in when he left the family. For Meg, who’s already seeking a surrogate father figure, Mr. Auster’s interest in her poetry-and her-seems like a way out of the impoverished existence (both financially and emotionally) that she leads in her single-parent household. Yet Meg is far from being a passive case study in economic victimization. She has an adolescent’s awareness of the power of her good looks, though without the experience to decide how far she can go in exploiting it. A lucrative poetry contest in Florida is the siren call that drives her to a series of petty thefts and drug sales, egged on by her friend’s drug-dealing brother. In the process, she neglects her younger sister and is then guilt-ridden when her sibling dies from anorexia. Mr. Auster lets Meg literally cry on his shoulder on the way to her eventual seduction in a Florida motel, with his own unhappy wife, Delia (Frances Fisher), and their teenage son trailing in the vicinity.

But Mr. Auster’s crossing-the-line conquest of Meg is only one level of his betrayal. He lies to her earlier about his novel-in-progress, which he ostentatiously carries around in his briefcase. When Meg asks him to read a passage from the novel, he responds with a poetic passage by Rilke that he falsely attributes to his own efforts. Meg eventually learns the extent of Mr. Auster’s deception when she surreptitiously opens his briefcase while he’s in the motel bathroom. What follows next is reasonable retribution, but nothing can repay the sheer sleaziness of Mr. Auster’s unprofessional behavior, starting from the first moment he chooses to manipulate Meg’s helplessness and vulnerability for his own carnal advantage. Blue Car is an impressive first effort from Ms. Moncrieff, but the eternal Aristotelian in me finds it depressing to watch characters always walking around in moral quicksand.

A Fine and Fair Lady

Wendy Hiller (1912-2003) appeared only sporadically on the screen, showing up in a mere 20 feature films over a period of 50 years-from Lancashire Luck in 1937, which I’ve never seen (and would like to desperately), to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne in 1987, in which she played a supporting role to the lead actress, Maggie Smith. Hiller preferred to work in the theater unless she was offered a culturally respectable film role. Consequently, most of the throbbing magic of her movie persona is contained in her second, third and fourth films, Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s Pygmalion (1938), Gabriel Pascal’s Major Barbara (1941) and Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945).

Powell told me shortly before his death in 1990 that he’d wanted Deborah Kerr and James Mason for I Know Where I’m Going! instead of Hiller and Roger Livesey. As much as I admired Kerr and Mason, I’m overjoyed that the original casting fell through, because Hiller and Livesey projected two of the most glorious voices in the history of cinematic courtship. I have often said that onstage it’s the voice that counts, while on-screen it’s the eyes. The only time I ever saw Hiller onstage was in the Broadway production of The Heiress sometime in the late 40’s. I’m still haunted by her near-shrieking second-act cry: “Morris must come! Morris must come!” Afterward, for the first and only time in my life, I trotted back to the stage door to get her autograph. She gave it to me with a gracious pleasantry in the most enchanting of all voices (with the possible exception of Margaret Sullavan’s)-but what else would one expect of the screen’s first Eliza Doolittle?

The Remake vs. the Original: Let’s Call It a Draw