[Screen It]


(1998) (Richard Dreyfuss, Jenna Elfman) (PG-13)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Mild *Minor Moderate None None
Mild None Minor None Moderate
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
*Moderate Minor Mild Mild Minor

Comedy: A man's initial lie about discovering an unknown, primitive tribe gets out of hand as he and his kids end up dressing like the villagers on film and in person to fool his anthropological colleagues.
James Krippendorf (RICHARD DREYFUSS) is an acclaimed anthropologist who has spent his university-sponsored grant on keeping his kids, Shelly (NATASHA LYONNE), Mickey (GREGORY SMITH) and Edmund (CARL MICHAEL LINDNER), fed, clothed, and together after their mother's death. When Veronica Micelli (JENNA ELFMAN), an enthusiastic, but novice colleague, reminds him that he's due to deliver his speech about the research he's conducted on an "undiscovered" tribe, Krippendorf panics.

With no material to present, he makes up an imaginary New Guinea tribe and calls them the "Shelmikedmu," an abbreviated conglomeration of his kids' first names. Soon, everyone wants to know more about these people, and Krippendorf is forced to make films of them starring him and his kids dressed up like the native people. Not everyone falls for his charade, however, and Ruth Allen (LILY TOMLIN), another colleague, sets out to prove that this New Guinean tribe doesn't exist.

Meanwhile, university officials Gerald Adams (STEPHEN ROOT) and President Porter (DORIS BELACK) unknowingly spot Krippendorf dressed as the tribesman, and then want both the anthropologist and his "find" to appear together at several functions. Soon, Veronica's in on the ruse, and she, Krippendorf and the kids do what they can to prevent the others from learning that they've made up everything.

If they're fans of Dreyfuss ("Jaws" "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), Elfman (TV's "Dharma and Greg") or of screwball comedies, they might. Preteens, however, will probably have little interest in this film.
For sexual humor.
  • RICHARD DREYFUSS plays an acclaimed anthropologist who has used his grant money to support his kids after his wife has died. To cover up that "misuse," he suddenly concocts a lie and then finds himself having to make up more lies to cover the original one. Beyond actively getting his kids to help him do that, he also curses a little (the "s" word) and sleeps and takes advantage of Veronica (filming their encounter to later use in a documentary).
  • JENNA ELFMAN plays an enthusiastic novice anthropologist. She also curses a little (the "s" word), is drunk in one scene, and has sex with James.


    OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
    When I was a young kid, I distinctly remember getting one of those "paint by number" art sets, where you literally painted in the numbered sections on a canvas. When done, you had a finished piece of "art" that -- unless you were a gifted child -- would have been impossible to paint on your own. While the painting looked somewhat real -- usually a cheap imitation of some well- known piece -- it would never fool anyone for being the real thing. Anyone could tell that it was a product of painting by numbers, and while it might stir a little appreciation -- heck, a kid "painted" it after all -- it certainly wouldn't bring them joy like real art.

    Hollywood sometimes makes movies like that. Instead of paint, however, they use something more akin to a fill in the blanks form. Dropping in plot points, standard-issue characters, and other writing essentials, they create a script that looks like it could make an okay movie. Not a great movie, mind you, but one that mimics previously successful films and that has all of the necessary elements to proceed from point a, to point b and so on. "Krippendorf's Tribe" is one of those paint by number movies. It works -- on the most elementary form, and may please those who don't mind regurgitated formulas in the guise of "new" films. It's doubtful, however, that this film will catch on theatrically, although it might perform better on video.

    The biggest problem is that we've seen all of this before. Here we have the standard Hollywood family where the mom's died, the family's dysfunctional, and the house is so messy it would make a rat sue for libel if you called it a "rat's nest." The dad's absentminded, the oldest daughter essentially runs the place, and the two younger kids run free like wild animals. Of course this is something of a set up for this anthropologist to use as his comparative criteria for his make- believe tribe, but that's beyond that point. This is the standard starting point where we know that whatever transpires during the less than two hour plot will bring the family back together again.

    While such events don't often occur in real life, that's the magic of the movies so you can't knock the film for presenting its own take of a modern day fairytale where everything is inevitably, and certainly not surprisingly, better by the end. It's also implicitly understood that the film isn't trying to be high art by any means. It just wants to provide audiences with some hijinks to keep them entertained for an hour or so. That's fine as long as it manages to do that, but this release can barely keep up with the weakest of sitcoms, let alone feature length productions.

    To make up for that, the film tries to introduce the "novel" high concept idea that Dreyfuss gets caught dressed up like a villager and can never turn back after that. This is simply an uninspired variation of the many cross-dressing movies such as "Some Like It Hot," "Tootsie," and "Mrs. Doubtfire" that have been popular with moviegoers through the years. Instead of "becoming" the opposite sex, however, Dreyfuss becomes the opposite culture. Whereas a movie like "Tootsie" examined what it meant to be a woman in a man's world -- and still managed to be hilarious in its execution -- this film's sole intention is to go just for the laughs. Unfortunately, you probably won't find much of it that funny. It's yet another paint by numbers element, and there's never any doubt that both Dreyfuss and his "alter ego" will be required in the same setting at the same time. Thus we'll be treated to many moments where he'll have to rush back and forth, excusing himself to change costumes.

    While such moments are funny in "Tootsie" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," they aren't those films' main assets. The first had a superbly written script with great performances. Unlike "Tootsie" -- a real "painting" -- where Hoffman's character learns how to be a better man by being a woman, Dreyfuss' character goes through the motions but never changes. Sure, he interacts more with his kids, but such moments feel contrived and forced.

    Now, one can argue that "Mrs. Doubtfire" is a ripoff of "Tootsie." While that's marginally true (another man dressing up as a woman), there are many other original elements and then of course there is Robin Williams' performance that boosted the film. Here we have Dreyfuss, an Academy Award winner performer (for "The Goodbye Girl") who's appeared in some great films ("Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," etc...). Yet for every one of those good films, he's also appeared in gems such as "Let It Ride" and "Silent Fall." You can't really fault him for not having an unblemished track record -- few performers do -- but the problem here is that he's not a great comedic performer. Of course, Dustin Hoffman isn't either, but "Tootsie" wasn't intended to be a flat-out comedy and he delivered a tremendous performance anyway. The role of Krippendorf needs a funny man to make it work, and while Dreyfuss gives it a shot, he's just not that funny.

    Faring a little better, but also not really that funny, is Jenna Elfman. Familiar to most viewers as Dharma on TV's "Dharma and Greg," Elfman certainly has an on-screen charisma that works to her advantage, and I expect we'll be seeing more of her on the big screen. While she's traded in her hippie roots (from the TV show) for a hyperactively gregarious persona, she's always fun to watch, but I imagine her routine may annoy some people. The young performers playing the kids are okay, but don't create any interesting takes on their characters to stand out from similar roles in other movies. The brilliant Lily Tomlin is wasted in her short time on screen. I kept expecting something really fun to develop with her character, but she isn't given much to do. The rest of the cast members inhabit stereotypically standard, paint by the numbers creations.

    Some moviegoers will like this film -- they'll describe it as charming and screwball, and will note that it wasn't intended to be an Oscar contender, so I might as well let up on the heavy criticism. Yet for those of us who see hundreds of movies per year, we get tired of seeing the old high concept formula being resurrected once again without much thought or care going into the finished product. This film offers no surprises, few laughs (unless you consider people dressing up like natives as funny), and lots of predictably mundane, sitcom-like moments. Perhaps with a different cast and some better writing, it might have fared better -- but then again, that describes a great many movies. We give "Krippendorf's Tribe" a 3 out of 10.

    Although this film seems to be aimed at families -- a father gets his kids to help him out of a jam -- the included sexual material will probably be surprising to some viewers. There's one off- screen encounter, but more material that's talked about on-screen such as penis sheaths, dildos, circumcisions, mating rituals, etc... and at one moment, Veronica responds to Krippendorf finding her attractive by commenting, "Are you saying that just because I'm holding your penis?" (fully clothed, that is).

    There's also the major factor that the professor lies throughout the movie and gets his kids to cooperate in perpetuating all of that. We also learn that the children's mother died one or two years ago (the reason is never explained) and until the group comes together to help dad, they're a rather dysfunctional, and messy, unit. Profanity is moderate with 5 "s" words and an assortment of others, and Veronica is drunk in one scene (where Krippendorf takes advantage of her, filming their sexual encounter to later use in a documentary). We suggest that you look through the content should you or your kids wish to see this film.

  • The kids' grandparents drink martinis.
  • Veronica appears to be drunk and Krippendorf pours her even more brandy.
  • Krippendorf belches and tosses an empty beer bottle to his lawn.
  • People drink champagne at a reception.
  • We see some tribesmen drinking beer.
  • Though not bloody or gory, we do hear Ruth's pet monkey fart (and Krippendorf says, "Oh that was him").
  • Mickey holds a pig that urinates on a school official (during his school presentation about girls having their first period needing to be "cleansed" with pig urine).
  • Veronica makes Krippendorf, who's dressed as a tribesman, eat a large grub.
  • Granted this is a screwball type comedy, but Krippendorf does set up a lie that he continues to perpetuate throughout the film, that stems from him spending his grant research money on his family. He also films himself having sex with Veronica (unknown to her and as they're dressed up like natives) and includes that footage in one of his documentaries.
  • Shelly is openly dissatisfied with her dad's duties as a father.
  • Some may view white people dressing up in "dark face" to play natives as having both.
  • Early on, Krippendorf isn't nice to Veronica and seems to be irritated by her enthusiasm.
  • In one scene, Krippendorf and his kids seem to be "borrowing" (ie. stealing) farm animals to use in their films.
  • Veronica decides to go along with the ruse just so that she can collect half of a large grant.
  • None.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Geez," "Jerk," "Loser," "Shut up," "Kiss my neolithic ass," "Bitch" (said in tribal talk by Krippendorf to Veronica when he's mad at her), "Twit" and "Moron."
  • Krippendorf tells many lies and deceives people to cover his butt.
  • Krippendorf drinks milk straight from the carton.
  • Krippendorf exaggeratedly belches a few times.
  • Shelly (who doesn't have a license) drives a car and swerves through traffic as she and her brothers try to get to a reception to warn their dad.
  • None.
  • One scene has just a tiny bit of playfully scary music.
  • None.
  • At least 5 "s" words, 3 asses, 3 hells, 3 S.O.B.'s (and two more incomplete "Son of a..."), 2 craps, 2 damns, and 7 uses of "God," 4 of "Oh my God," 2 uses each of "For God's sakes" and "My God" and 1 use each of "G-damn" and "Swear to God" as exclamations.
  • Some may see the following content ranging from heavy to mild depending on how you view the following in quantity and degree (thus our moderate rating), considering that it appears in what looks like a "family" film.
  • Krippendorf tells one of his kids to give something to the mother, "...the one without a penis" (referring to the penis sheath -- a long, bamboo-like rod sticking up from the natives' crotch area).
  • There's talk that a colleague misspent his grant money on "...Broadway plays, hotels, hookers..."
  • Krippendorf shows a melted toy at a seminar that he claims is "...a Neolithic dildo..." and he shows that it has a male and female end. He then asks Ruth if she wants to take it home for the weekend.
  • Krippendorf decides that one of his films will deal with the tribe's "primitive circumcision rituals" and we see several moments where the brothers fake doing this with Mickey swinging a primitive looking ax down toward Edmund's crotch (always filmed from behind the younger boy). Krippendorf coaches Edmund how to react: "You're really afraid that your brother's going to chop your wee-wee off."
  • Veronica mentions "intense sexual longing" when talking about the made up tribe.
  • Mickey gives a presentation (to his school) about the made up tribe and talks about a ceremonial hut used for "young virgins to experience (their) first menstruation."
  • A school official shows a picture that little Edmund drew that shows the circumcision ritual and shows a little boy with a little cartoon penis.
  • Veronica and a cable channel producer tell Krippendorf that his next documentary has to be something that will draw in the viewers, and she suggests "sex" and the tribes' mating rituals. Krippendorf then says, "No one is gonna wanna watch the Shelmikedmu do each other." Veronica then asks a group of ladies if they would, and one of them replies, "You mean sex videos? Oh, absolutely."
  • Krippendorf shows Veronica (who is somewhat drunk) a device used by the tribesmen to select their brides. It's a large board that fits under their breasts (that then hang over the board and are measured) and has a hole in it around the crotch region. Veronica then opens her shirt (we see her bra and some cleavage) and presses the board under her breasts. She then asks what the hole is for, but before Krippendorf can answer she grabs his clothed crotch through it (off camera). After he says that he find her attractive, she says "Are you saying that just because I'm holding your penis?" We then later see them dressed as tribal people and notice that he's filming their encounter. It's implied that they have sex and we seem them together in bed the next morning. We then see just the very lower part of her bare butt as she bends over wearing just one of his shirts.
  • Veronica later sees the above filmed sexual encounter at an electronics store. As it shows on the TV sets, a male bystander says about Veronica (as the tribal lady), "I'd do her."
  • On a talk show, Veronica (who's mad at Krippendorf who's dressed like a tribesman) talks about his penis sheath and mentions that its size is in direct contrast "to the size of his...Let's just say, the bigger the sheath, the smaller the..." (she never completes the thought). Mad at her, Krippendorf (as the tribesman) grabs and holds on to her clothed breast.
  • Krippendorf, dressed and acting like a tribesman, grabs his father-in-law and does some pelvic thrusting against his butt.
  • At a reception, several buxom women's dresses show cleavage, and an older man asks one of the women, "Are you a nursing mother?"
  • As Krippendorf and Veronica change clothes (from evening wear to tribal outfit and back again), he sees her bending over in her tribal bra and "loincloth" and snuggles up to her (but they're interrupted by someone).
  • Some New Guinean tribesmen pass around a long pipe that they smoke.
  • A TV cable channel producer smokes several times.
  • Krippendorf's wife and the mother to the three kids has died (in the past one or two years and without an explanation of the cause) before the movie starts. Therefore, Krippendorf (who briefly mentions he "cracked up" after her death) is a single parent trying to raise three kids. Shelly thinks he's a bad parent and is openly hostile to him. The family is quite dysfunctional and their home is a mess.
  • The perpetuating lie/deception in which Krippendorf finds himself, and the fact that he gets his kids wrapped up in it as well. Also, that in the end he gets away with all of it by the actions of one of his kids.
  • Veronica slaps a man on the face.
  • Veronica, mad at Krippendorf who's dressed like a tribesman, pushes down on his penis sheath that has the same result as hitting him in the crotch.
  • Dressed like a tribesman, Krippendorf picks up his mother-in-law's vase and purposefully breaks it.

  • Reviewed February 21, 1998

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