KRIPPENDORF'S TRIBE (1998) ** 1/2 Directed
"KT" is the story of a fictional, academic fraud. Anthropologist Professor Krippendorf (Hoffman) had received a $100,000 Proxmire Foundation grant to find a "lost" tribe in New Guinea. He, his wife -- also an anthropologist -- and their three kids went on a field expedition, but it came a-cropper.
Things get cinematically murky from here on out. Upon their return, Mrs. K died (where, when, of what?). Apparently Prof.James Krippendorf claimed that the expedition was a success but kept stalling with making the results public. In reality, he fell apart professionally and personally, made a mess of being a single father, and in the past two years has gone through the rest of the grant money to raise his kids and buy stuff for the home. He is broke and way behind with his mortgage payments.
The above is a relatively coherent decryption of the movie's messy --but often funny -- exposition. It opens with a view of the K household in disarray, furniture that looks partly like the outcome of Goodwill (Industries) hunting, the Professor in a state of confusion and the kids not respecting Papa.
Old Hollywood college movies were populated by overage students who danced, sang, lit bonfires and apparently majored in ukulele. Nowadays, pictures on Academe, in keeping with the times may stress research. So,when Veronica Micelli (Jenna Elfman) persistently bangs on the Professor's door, she sets the plot in motion. Veronica, whose height dwarfs Krippendorf's, was an adoring student of his and is now a new Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University. She wants to collaborate with her idol -- a good way to get fame, promotion and tenure. She also reminds him that he is giving a lecture on his findings. In a matter of hours.
Krippendorf's panic,chaotic school office and his bluffing throughout his lecture are as amusing as they are unlikely. Under pressure, the invent-as-you-go scholar baptizes the imaginary tribe Shelmikedmu -- concocted from the names of his children -- and describes it by using his own experiences as a single dad. His biggest "discovery" is that the Shelmikedmu fathers alone raise their progeny and are respected.
So far, so bad for Prof. K. The worst news is that visual proof of his success is expected of him. It's a nightmare. The professor must feel like Kafka's K. With necessity being the mother of invention, he gathers his children, builds a "New Guinea"" landscape in his yard (!), adds huts and stuff (!) and disguises the kids as "natives" (!) Then he films all this like a pro, on 16 mm. no less (!).In record time (something like a few hours) the film is shot, apparently developed at home, and edited with real anthropological footage spliced in (!)
What follows is chaotic madness, fluff as credible as Mel Brooks extravaganzas, the Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers or Monty Python. The tangled web we weave whenever we deceive grows non-stop and exponentially. At every step additional inventions are required, all unbelievable, of course. The tribe -- eventually including co-conspirator Veronica -- goes through lightning-quick masquerades, transformations, and complications which include a rival, suspicious and witchy colleague (Lily Tomlin, played as a caricature) suddenly taking off for New Guinea so as to discredit Krippendorf.
On the whole, the picture is entertaining, albeit uneven. It creates in the audience the gamut of reactions: big laughter, chuckles, smiles, smirks. Shudders too, since this "Widowed...with Children" farce can be just as tasteless as "Married... with children" and at times just as unfunny.
Alfred Hitchcock's famous remark "It's only a movie" applies here. Set aside your morals, as a precondition to having fun. Take "Krippendorf's Tribe" solemnly and its heavy load of bathroom and sexual "humor" is reprehensible, as is the spectacle of a dysfunctional family bonding through major cheating.
What certainly is politically incorrect is not the showing of white people in blackface, but the transparent and insensitive use of African-Americans (and a South African) to impersonate "real" New Guineans. Couldn't the film makers have gone the extra mile and somehow found natives of New Guinea?
Superfluously tacky too is a big banquet to honor donor Mrs. Proxmire on her 100th birthday.The sight of her and of several guests connected to intravenous machines is pure ageism -- not helped by an amazingly unfunny question to the centenarian: "Was it you who died or your sister?"
"KT" is to a great extent a burlesque send-off of Academe. The script, starting with the scandalous cheating on, or illegal use of grants, takes aspects of academic life and pushes them to most outrageously absurd levels. Cannily, it throws in the in-joke (wasted on most viewers) of the name Proxmire used for the grant and for a major campus building.
Wisconsin's great Senator William Proxmire served for 32 years, retiring in 1989. A devoted public servant, he created in 1975 his famous Golden Fleece Award which, each month, singled out a "wasteful, ridiculous or ironic use of the taxpayers' money." In 1985 he declared:"My own favorite was the study to find out whether sunfish that drink tequila are more aggressive than sunfish who drink gin." (See below for a sampling of other awards) *
Performances range from adequate to very good, the latter by the manic Dreyfuss and his brood. In a work of pure fantasy the youngsters are smart, imaginative, and deliver their lines more convincingly than in most child-roles.Jenna Elfman is overdone. Save for the smallish role of Lily Tomlin, the supporting cast have tiny parts
Photography (in Hawaii and California) is skillful. In another in-joke which only older or savvy viewers will appreciate, much of the musical score nicely consists of exotic tunes, including the once-famous "Taboo" by Margarita Lecuona ("Babalu"), a distant cousin of the admirable Ernesto Lecuona, the Cuban composer of, among many songs, "Malaguena," "Siboney," and"Jungle Drums." ====================================== * Some other Golden Fleece Awards.
To the Department of the Army for spending $6,000 in 1981 to prepare a 17-page document that told the federal government how to buy a bottle of Worcestershire sauce.
To the Environmental Protection Agency for spending an extra $1 million to $1.2 million in 1980 to preserve a Trenton, NJ sewer as an historical monument.
To the Commerce Department for spending $20,000 in 1981 to construct an 800-foot limestone replica of the Great Wall of China in Bedford, Indiana.
To the NEH for a $25,000 grant in 1977 to study why people cheat, lie and act rudely on local Virginia tennis courts.
To the Office of Education for spending $219,592 in 1978 to develop a curriculum to teach college students how to watch television.
" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)
Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at edwinjahiel.com