Krippendorf’s Tribe

Here’s an idea sure to get laughs: Get white actors to put on black face and pretend to be tribesmen. Shades of Al Jolson! This might have been funny at one time (then again, probably not), but it certainly has no place in the politically correct nineties. So why is this the running gag in “Krippendorf’s Tribe,” a family comedy gone horribly astray?


What is Richard Dreyfuss, the perennial fuss budget, doing in this modern day minstrel show that proves the family that plays together, stays together. Even though it’s played for laughs, “Krippendorf’s Tribe” could have and would have benefited from a black cast. It wouldn’t nearly have been as offensive had someone like Danny Glover or Gregory Hines played the single father who recruits his children into a scam to fake a lost New Guinea tribe.

That’s the problem facing anthropologist James Krippendorf (Dreyfuss), who has spent all of his grant money to locate the lost tribe trying to take care of his three dysfunctional kids. Now it’s time to put up or pay up, so Krippendorf builds a fake village in his backyard and gets his kids to play the tribe members. It’s a great set up, one that screenwriter Charlie Peters (based on a book by Frank Parkin) and director Todd Holland fail to work to their advantage.

The very idea reeks situation comedy, and to push that point home, Lily Tomlin and Jenna Elfman of “Dharma and Greg” are along for the ride, literally. Once you get past the idea of Dreyfuss and his brood in black face, the comedy seems to go downhill from there. If anything happens in this movie, it has either been telegraphed way too soon, or seems out of place for a family comedy. This might have made a great “Brady Bunch” episode years ago (and in fact, Greg once made a home movie with his family playing Indians, excuse me, Native Americans).

The script is top heavy with sexual innuendo and lost values, subjects far too intense for a fluffy family comedy. When “Krippendorf’s Tribe” isn’t being suggestive, it’s being obvious. There isn’t one unexpected moment in the whole film.

Dreyfuss isn’t bad, just out of place. He tries hard to make James a strong father figure, one willing to go to extremes to provide for his family. Nice virtues that get sidetracked by silly sight gags and outrageous dialogue. Elfman is fine as the young anthropology student who falls under Krippendorf’s spell, while Tomlin’s rival anthropologist out to prove Krippendorf’s a fake is paint-by-numbers.

“Krippendorf’s Tribe” isn’t a total waste. When it’s not being out of tune with the times, it does share some funny moments that manage to rise to the surface. If it weren’t for the sexually suggestive dialogue, the politically incorrect impersonations, the standard issue characters, the flat dialogue, and unimaginative direction, “Krippendorf’s Tribe” might have been a great family comedy.

BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE

KRIPPENDORF’S TRIBE

Richard Dreyfuss, Jenna Elfman, Lily Tomlin, in a film directed by Todd Holland. Rated PG-13. 94 Min.

LARSEN RATING: $2



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