Krippendorf’s Tribe

Krippendorf's Tribe

We don’t see many films like Krippendorf’s Tribe today. It’s a screwball comedy just like we got in the 1930s and 1940s in films like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. And as expected, it bombed with critics, which probably also killed it at the box office given it’s a film for adults and for some reason they listen to critics.


It’s based on Frank Parkin’s dark comedic novel of the same name. Other than the idea that the main character fakes the existence of a Neolithic tribe, there is no comparison.

It tells the story of James Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss). He and his wife were anthropologists until she recently died, leaving him with their three children. As a result, he kind of lost his mind and never finished (or even started) the work on a $100,000 research grant to find a lost tribe of New Guinea.

At the start of the film, he is told that he is supposed to give a lecture about his findings. When he learns that another professor is going to jail for misappropriation of research funds, James decides to lie and create a tribe out of his experience as a single parent.

He is pushed along by an ambitious young professor, Veronica (Jenna Elfman), who is clueless about the con. The family get in on the fun of creating the “lost tribe.” And eventually Veronica does too because she has as few scruples as James. (A match made in heaven!)

Everything gets resolved as preposterously as it does in The Palm Beach Story.


When I first saw the trailer for Krippendorf’s Tribe, I knew I had to see it. But my reason was odd. In the trailer, James uses a CP-16 R/A — a 16 mm sound film camera, used a lot in television news and, I can imagine, anthropology research. I also happened to own one myself.

But I was pleased when I went to see it. The only thing that I didn’t like was the abrupt end. There really is nothing in the film that signals its coming. And it wouldn’t have taken much either. The eldest child, Shelly (Natasha Lyonne), could have been seen on the phone saying, “So you can do that for us?” And it would have been fine.

Critical Reaction

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.

Take my criticism about the ending above. Not one critic I read noted this problem. That’s because they didn’t engage enough with the film to find a valid criticism of it. The best example of this is Eric D Snider’s review. It demonstrates what’s wrong with most reviews — of Krippendorf’s Tribe and most other films too:

  • Misremembering the plot
  • Slandering people involved
  • Making broad generalizations
  • Complaining that it should be a different film
  • Nitpicking the plot
  • Moralizing.

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

Let me leave you with one good review that I found. It is by Madeleine Williams at Cinematter. And unlike almost all the other reviews, it engages with the film.

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. It isn’t a great film but it’s entertaining if you give it half a chance. I’d hate to be something like Eric D Snider and be incapable of enjoying a sweet and silly little film like Krippendorf’s Tribe.

Technical Information

Information about the movie itself:

  • Release date: 27 February 1998
  • Length: 94 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Film: 35 mm Spherical Color

Obviously, so many more people are involved in the making of a film. But here are some of the most important:

  • Director: Todd Holland
  • Producers: Larry Brezner, Ross Canter, and Whitney Green
  • Screenwriter: Charlie Peters (based on Krippendorf’s Tribe by Frank Parkin)
  • Cinematographers: Dean Cundey
  • Camera Operator: James Etheridge and Casey Hotchkiss
  • Editor: Jon Poll
  • Composer: Bruce Broughton
  • Actors: Richard Dreyfuss, Jenna Elfman, and Natasha Lyonne

Image of Krippendorf’s Tribe poster cropped from one at Cranky Critic. Licensed under Fair Use.

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