Last night I watched Krippendorf’s Tribe the 1998 filmed version of Frank Parkin’s almost unrecognizable novel of the same name. Since it first came out, I’ve been a defender of the film. It certainly isn’t great art — or art at all. It is just a silly film that doesn’t try to be anything else. And I think it works rather well in that regard.
Critics Don’t Like Krippendorf’s Tribe
As a result, I’ve never been very clear what critics hate so much about the film. Last night, I showed it to my father, and like me, he found it very silly and fun. So I thought I might revisit the film’s fairly consistent bad reviews with a trip over to Rotten Tomatoes.
I was surprised to find that a lot of the reviews were little more than complaints about the bawdy humor in the film. This in itself is kind of a strange complaint. The film is rated PG-13. ParaNorman was only rated PG, and it not only has sexual innuendo but scary scenes as well.
I think that film critics are usually at their worst when reviewing comedies. The thing about comedies is that the viewer brings as much comedy to the experience as the film. Ask any stand-up comedian. They will tell you that routines that work brilliantly on Friday nights often die on Tuesday nights with their small, scattered, and mostly unhappy audiences. (Why else does someone go out to a comedy club on a Tuesday?) There are a lot of comedies that don’t work for me, but other people find hysterical. Who am I to say that a film isn’t funny when others find it so? And can I really be trusted? If I had seen the same movie a day earlier or a day later, mightn’t I have found it funny?
One Good Review
Of the reviews, the only one I found that I thought was reasonably useful was Madeleine Williams’ review at Cinematter. She starts the review, “Krippendorf’s Tribe is a formula comedy. Done poorly, formulaic comedies might seem to signify the downfall of American cinema. However, every now and then one emerges, like Krippendorf’s Tribe, that actually works.” I think that’s about right: it does what it tries to do, although I have my problems with the film that I will get to later.
The Arrogance of Film Critics: an Example
For pure film critic arrogance and uselessness, however, you can’t beat Eric D Snider. Before I get to discussing his review of Krippendorf’s Tribe, let me give you a general overview of him. In general, his reviews are short and sloppy. But he used to write a column over at Film.com called, What’s the Big Deal? In those rather longer articles, he discussed famous and significant films and why people care about them. There, he actually spent some time and did a really good job. In fact, in these articles, I think he does what film critics ought to be doing. But I also suspect he’s seen those films more than once.
So I’m not saying that he’s an idiot or that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And clearly, people like short articles by people they consider film ombudsmen. But that very idea is what leads to things like his review of Krippendorf’s Tribe. It goes along very much with part of the tag line for his site, “Snide Remarks.” But it hardly matters; he may be an extreme example, but what he writes is very much what passes for film reviews today. He starts with his real problem, and it isn’t Krippendorf’s Tribe.
In order to find Krippendorf’s Tribe funny, you must agree with it on one fundamental principle: Penises are funny.
Perhaps this is where we part ways. In general, penises are funny. But you could take out all of penis humor from the film and you would still be left with a lot of humor. There is no doubt however, that there is a fair amount of sexual humor. There is nothing especially right or wrong about that. Not that it matters, because Snider isn’t actually that interested in the subject. It is just a clever — and highly misleading — way to start and end his review.
If you do not hold that truth to be self-evident, there is no hope of your enjoying this movie. Also, if you are above the age of 9, there is no hope of your enjoying this movie. It’s a film aimed at kids that is too lewd to be viewed by them.
If the film really is aimed at kids, it has a funny way of showing it. Kids wouldn’t get most of the humor. I’m afraid that Snider is mistaking a film about a family for a family movie. He clearly knows the film is rated PG-13, but apparently he doesn’t know what it means.
Krippendorf’s Tribe Isn’t a Disney Film
Only the people at Disney could come up with such a quandary, and it is Disney (through its Touchstone Pictures division) that inflicted this live-action trainwreck upon the world. Surely Walt spins in his cryogenic chamber when he hears of thoughtless movies like this one being made, movies that obsess over genitalia as though they were fleshy, bulbous deity.
This is brilliant! Touchstone Pictures is a brand that Disney uses. It uses it to release films targeted at adults. If the film were made for kids, it would have been released as a Disney picture. Surely Snider understands this, but conveniently ignores it so he can continue his complaint that Krippendorf’s Tribe isn’t a different movie than it is.
I appreciate the shout out to the “Walt Disney’s not dead” urban legend, but it doesn’t belong anywhere in this review.
Let’s Make Fun of Actor’s Personal Problems From Decades Past!
Krippendorf’s Tribe stars Richard Dreyfuss, who at one point won an Academy Award, though I think he subsequently traded it for cocaine in an alley. He plays James Krippendorf, an eminent anthropologist whose wife recently died, leaving him with three kids you may have seen in other movies: the Sullen Teen, the Brilliant Boy and the Adorable 5-Year-Old.
That’s a low blow to Dreyfuss, whose drug problem predated the review by over two decades. What’s more, he’s done much fine work since then. Of course, Snider can’t even be bothered to say there is anything wrong with Dreyfuss’ performance; he just implies that he’s a bad actor.
His characterization of the children is, not surprisingly, quite wrong. The “Sullen Teen” (Natasha Lyonne as Shelly) has taken on the responsibility of running the house since dad has been an emotional wreck. The “Brilliant Boy” (Gregory Smith as Mickey) is smart, but that isn’t the only thing he is. And the “Adorable 5-Year-Old” (Carl Michael Lindner as Edmund) is so scarred by his mother’s death that he refuses to speak out loud. I’ll admit, these are not characters of the depth one would find in a Dostoyevsky novel, but Krippendorf’s Tribe is a screwball comedy.
When Critics Don’t Pay Attention
As the film begins, James is harassed by an aggressively perky college student named Veronica (Jenna Elfman) who wants to be on his research team. She also casually reminds James that 1) he was given a research grant of $100,000 two years ago; 2) he has wasted all the money on candy and gum; and 3) he is supposed to give a lecture and report his findings TONIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Nothing like all caps and 14 exclamation marks to make your point! But here he gets a number of things wrong. Veronica was once Krippendorf’s student, but is now on the faculty of his school. We learn that he had a research grant of $100,000 and that he has used it all just living, but not from Veronica. Details like these get lost when you’ve tuned out to a movie, which means that Snider tuned out five minutes into it.
How could James have forgotten all of this? Easy. He is the world’s stupidest man.
No. He forgot it because (1) he still hasn’t gotten over the recent death of his wife; (2) it is a screwball comedy; and (3) if he had started a month earlier it wouldn’t have changed anything. Snider thinks the whole cast of characters are the “world’s stupidest people,” as we will shortly see.
When Critics Forget They’re Watching a Screwball Comedy
Well, he’s in quite a pickle now, isn’t he? It is difficult to sympathize, for surely no one with capacity to read these words is dumb enough to waste $100,000 of grant money and forget what he was supposed to be doing with it. Do you suppose that every time James bought something expensive, he thought, “Oh, yeah, all this money. I guess I should go do some research with it, shouldn’t I? Ooh, look, a shiny thing…!”
This is over-thinking the film, but I must admit to having similar concerns, given that I used to be research faculty. For one thing, when a scientist gets a research grant, he isn’t just handed a check. The money is distributed through the academic institution. There is a budget. Money goes to different things. But at least a third of that grant would have gone for Krippendorf’s salary, to allow him time off from his teaching duties. So much of that money was rightfully his to spend.
But I still think Snider is wrong to say that such a thing couldn’t happen. People get themselves into all kinds of situations, especially after a tragedy like the loss of one’s wife. And to demand that kind of plot realism in a film of this nature is ridiculous. I’m sure Snider has never made similar comments about Bringing Up Baby. (Note: Snider doesn’t like Bringing Up Baby, either; but only because he doesn’t like Katherine Hepburn’s voice — such is the depth of his analysis.)
“Me Critic! Me Smart!
Anyway, he does the only thing you could do in this situation, which is to fabricate a New Guinea tribe and attribute a lot of interesting social customs to it. For the tribe’s name he comes up with Shelmikedmu, based on his three children, Shelley, Mickey and Edmund.How could he name a tribe after his own kids and not have anyone notice the connection and thus realize his work is a sham? Easy. They are all the world’s stupidest people.
In fact, he did have other options; he just chose to lie because Krippendorf is a lovable rogue. The “Shelmikedmu” is only obvious to viewers because we are shown how he comes up with the name. No one would notice this similarity to his children’s names because they don’t sound the same and no one at the college would even know the children’s names. The problem here is not stupid characters but a reviewer determined to find fault in a film.
The Typical Shout-Out to Bit Players
One person doubts him, though. This is Ruth Allen, a rival professor played by Lily Tomlin, who possesses in her left buttock more class and talent than the rest of this movie combined. (The same goes for David Ogden Stiers, of whom Disney must have incriminating photos, perhaps involving livestock, in order for him to appear in this film. It also goes for Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who plays Krippendorf’s mother-in-law and who subsequently appeared in Norm Macdonald’s Screwed
[Actually, it is the directorial debut of the brilliant screenwriting team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski], which makes me wonder if maybe she actually died several years ago and is merely being propped up in strategic locations, Weekend at Bernie’s
Interesting that both Lily Tomlin and David Ogden Stiers have more class than the rest of the film. Logically, this is impossible, but whatever. I thought Tomlin did a good job with Ruth’s aristocratic disdain, but I thought they could have lost the monkey, which isn’t used to any comedic effect except for one fart joke. Elaine Stritch was very good as the boozy grandmother. Stiers played his part well enough, but it isn’t enough of a part to have a strong opinion about.
Misunderstanding the Plot
Anyway, the movie tries to pawn Prof Allen off as a bad guy simply because she doubts our hero — who is lying, you’ll recall, which makes doubting him a fairly reasonable thing to do. But live-action Disney films deal in simplistic, moronic terms. The main character is always a hero, and everything he does is right. By process of elimination, anyone who opposes the main character is a bad guy. If Disney made a film about Adolf Hitler, 1) it would be a musical, and 2) you’d be expected to believe the Allies were mean for picking on cute li’l Hitly (voice of Nathan Lane).
This is rich! Snider is complaining about heroes being definitional, and yet he gave the truly mediocre Marvel’s The Avengers a rating of B+. I will say no more about this, other than to suggest you read my review of that film, Marvel’s The Despots.
That’s right: Ruth is the “heavy.” But it isn’t because she doubts our hero. It is because she is a thoroughly unlikable character. From the very start, she wants to see Krippendorf fail. It is typical academic politics, but the man has recently lost his wife and deserves a little understanding. But the moment he’s back, she’s there to pounce. In that way, she’s very much like Snider himself, so I can see why he thinks she is unfairly vilified. (And actually, she is given a good ending because she’s shown to be ethical; she doesn’t want to admit that Krippendorf appears to be right, but she does.)
Snider Wants You to Remember: He Hasn’t Forgotten Penises
Krippendorf not only lies to his colleagues, but involves his children in it. Sullen Teen wants nothing to do with his scheme, but Brilliant Boy and Adorable 5-Year-Old are both more than happy to help Dad perpetrate fraud and embezzlement. They build a New Guinea Shelmikedmu set in the backyard and create video footage of the non-existent tribe, including a circumcision ritual. (The leader of the tribe — impersonated by James [Krippendorf] himself — wears a penis sheath, too. This means that in virtually every scene of the movie, there is a phallic symbol or reference of some kind. Gay porn doesn’t refer to penises as much as Krippendorf’s Tribe does.)
I won’t try to psychoanalyze Snider’s penis obsession. The truth is that the tribal leader doesn’t show up until the second half of the film, and given it is pretty much the only phallic symbol in the film, one is simply not in “virtually every scene of the movie.”
The family working together (eventually joined by Veronica, becoming the new mother figure), is the emotional core of the film. Krippendorf has got himself into a bad situation and the family bails him out. Also: it is not Krippendorf, but his older son who suggests the idea. And while his daughter is not happy about the situation, she reluctantly does help out until the end, when she fully embraces the need to save the family. Perhaps if Snider had allowed the film to unfold for him rather than deciding it was terrible and marking down every time he saw a penis sheath, he might not have missed the emotional core of the film.
Conclusion: Krippendorf’s Tribe Is Not Pickpocket
In the end, Krippendorf’s massive web of lies and deceit brings the family together, as even Sullen Teen pitches in to aid Dad in selling his soul to Lucifer and setting a fine example for the kids. Not to spoil anything, but he gets away with it all. There is never any comeuppance; he never has to admit it was all a fake. In fact, he gets a new girlfriend out of the deal, though the thrill of that victory is no doubt lessened somewhat by it being Jenna Elfman. The message to our youth? Lying is fine, as long as you can get away with it. Also, penises are funny. Hooray!
Yes, the lovable rogue gets away with his crime. How terrible is that?! We’ve never before seen that in a PG-13 film! And the kids learned that protecting those you love — even when they make mistakes — and making the best of a bad situation is more important than being ideologically rigid and dedicated to pieties that don’t make the world a better place. Also, all the work Krippendorf did in creating the Shelmikedmu was to show that a society could be created that reflected his own life. So it isn’t like the work was a total sham. This point is forcefully made in the film.
But Don’t Forget: Penises and Jenna Elfman’s Unattractiveness
But Snider just couldn’t finish his review with attacking Jenna Elfman. And the attack wasn’t even on her acting but rather on her suitability as a mate for Krippendorf. And then he comes back to his main point that he doesn’t think penises are funny. All told, I think Freud would have had a field day with his review. But I won’t go there.
I will say that for a successful website that specializes in movie reviews, Snider uses Krippendorf’s Tribe for nothing more than a rant about how he doesn’t like sexual humor (or didn’t on the day he saw the film), in which he missed several important points about the movie. It is typical of why I say I don’t like movie reviewers.
Real Problems With Krippendorf’s Tribe
On the other hand, there are real problems with Krippendorf’s Tribe. And Roger Ebert, in a mixed review, nailed the biggest problem, “Comic momentum threatens to build up during a late scene at a banquet, where the university’s aged benefactor unexpectedly discovers the secret of the fraud. But the movie can’t find that effortless zaniness that good screwball comedy requires.” Watching it, I can just imagine what the Marx Brothers would have done with it. I would disagree, however, that in this particular scene the film can’t find the zaniness; I think it doesn’t even try. The scene instead is used only as a plot device to make clear that Krippendorf and Veronica really are in love with each other.
The other problem with the movie is that the denouement comes out of the blue. There was not a single part of the film that allows the viewer to see the end and think, “Oh! That’s what that was all about.” Instead, the ending seems abrupt and tacked on. What’s more, given that the happy ending is completely dependent upon the daughter, her character should have been better developed. She has a few really good scenes, but none really involve her father.
The Problem With Eric D Snider
But the issue at hand is not whether Krippendorf’s Tribe is a great film. The question is whether the film works on its own terms. And I think it does, although not spectacularly. But it is wrong to simply dislike the film and so write an article that takes potshots at every aspect of it, other than de rigueur shout outs to a couple of supporting cast members. The film — Any film! — deserves better. And Snider’s review doesn’t much engage with the film anyway. He simply states sexual humor to not be funny, nitpicks the plot, and casts aspersions on not the two leads as actors, but as people. It’s just a pathetic effort that says everything about him and nothing about the movie. And that’s not even a film review; that’s just an arrogant rant about a movie he decided not to like.
Image of Krippendorf’s Tribe poster cropped from one at Cranky Critic
. Licensed under Fair Use.