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.