Ealasaid/ March 6, 1998/ Movie Reviews and Features, Writing

Originally written for The Occidental.

Are you sick of studying? Through with thinking? Well, put your books away for a couple of hours, and go see Krippendorf’s Tribe. A cheerful, light-hearted comedy, it makes for a wonderful study break, even if the protagonist is an Anthropology Professor.

For the past two years, Dr. James Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss) has been living off a Proxmire Foundation grant which he and his (now deceased) wife were given to study an “undiscovered” tribe in New Guinea. Unfortunately, after his wife passed away, Krippendorf fell apart, and stopped his research. Then he finds out that he has to give a lecture on the tribe… but there is no tribe! Even worse, he has spent all the grant money raising his three children! Scrambling to put together some sort of a presentation, he creates a completely fictional tribe, basing it on his own family and naming it the Shelmikedmu, after his kids: Shelly, Mickey, and Edmund. After successfully bluffing his way through the lecture, he is informed that the Foundation requires documentation: 16mm films of the Shelmikedmu! Now his dysfunctional family has to pull together to pull this off — a scheme made more complicated by Dr. Veronica Micelli (Jenna Elfman), a former student determined to join Krippendorf and make the Shelmikedmu the biggest thing since sliced bread, and Dr. Ruth Allen (Lily Tomlin), a fellow Anthropologist determined to prove Krippendorf is a fraud.

Sure it’s a simple plot, and it’s predictable — but the best farces are! The audience knows going in that there has to be a happy ending, and the fun is in getting there. The characters are likewise simple, but they are believable and sympathetic which is far more important than complexity in this sort of film. Krippendorf is something of a scoundrel, and very sympathetic. Shelly, his oldest child, has had to raise her younger brothers for the last two years, and expresses her anger and disillusionment through wit. Veronica’s basic character trait is complete self-confidence, and she will not take “no” for an answer. By taking slightly exaggerated characters and placing them in the unusual (and likewise somewhat exaggerated) setting of the Anthropology department of an unnamed school, the setting is ripe for laughs.

Krippendorf’s Tribe also has a very strong cast, an indispensable part of any good comedy. Dreyfuss is wonderful, bringing just the right mix of “rogue with the heart of gold” and “absent minded professor” to his performance. Krippendorf really does love his children, but he’s not very good at expressing it. His talents lie in academia. Elfman’s recent success with “Dharma &Greg” has established her as a strong comic actress, and she is wonderful here. As Veronica, she is not only unscrupulously ambitious but irresistibly attractive, and brings an endearing quality to a character who could easily become the stereotypical comedic leading lady. Finally, Tomlin shines as Dr. Allen, who is enough like Krippendorf herself to know that he could be lying. Tomlin already has a history of playing comic roles with style, and Krippendorf’s Tribe is no different.

So, I hear you ask, what’s the bottom line? Well, Krippendorf’s Tribe is a fun movie, an endearing comedy. If you’re looking for action and serious art, go somewhere else. But if you’re looking for a movie to relax your mind from midterm blues, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.