‘Krippendorf’s Tribe’ Goes Off the Path, Back in Time
If you thought that blackface went out with Al Jolson, you’re wrong. If you thought “jungle bunny” humor of tales set in “darkest Africa” or way up the Amazon went out with serials, B-pictures and Tarzan, you’re wrong. “Krippendorf’s Tribe” revives all those old demeaning racist stereotypes in the most horrible ways--and at the very moment when the world’s few remaining isolated native populations face extinction.
Tastelessness can be hilarious if it is sufficiently affectionate and substantially funnier than it is offensive. The trouble is “Krippendorf’s Tribe"--arguably the worst movie ever to come out of Disney--induces more chagrin than laughter. It’s a jaw-dropper, not a thigh-slapper, and its sensibilities are so appallingly out of touch that they harken back to those innocent old Osa and Martin Johnson travelogues in which Pygmies danced to the Johnsons’ Victrola.
The movie does raise some perplexing questions: What did director Todd Holland and writer Charlie Peters have in mind in bringing Frank Parkin’s book to the screen? How did this project get the green light? What induced an actor of the caliber of Richard Dreyfuss to star? And why did Jenna Elfman, the red-hot young star of TV’s “Dharma & Greg,” have to make this her first featured role in a movie?
Dreyfuss plays Krippendorf, a recently widowed anthropologist with three children, a delinquent mortgage and a $100,000 research grant that’s supposed to yield a major paper on a lost New Guinea tribe that Krippendorf’s late anthropologist wife had become convinced existed. Devastated by his wife’s death, Krippendorf has done zero work, and his fumbling presentation is patently fake, yet for unfathomable reasons his description of the tribe he has invented passes muster with everyone except a prissy colleague, played by Lily Tomlin, no less.
Meanwhile, an obnoxiously aggressive young anthropologist named Veronica (Elfman) has latched on to Krippendorf and winds up selling the prof’s phony treatise as a TV series. This means Krippendorf has to blacken up himself and his kids to shoot fake jungle footage in his backyard and pad it out with material he and his wife shot in New Guinea with some real tribal people. (They’re the ones who told the Krippendorfs about the alleged “lost” tribe.) When Krippendorf has a TV hit on his hands, he and Veronica fake “mating practices of the natives,” tape, apparently a porn reel, for more bucks.
“Krippendorf’s Tribe” isn’t remotely intelligent or sophisticated enough to make it as a pitch-dark comedy or satire. It’s just sheer crassness overlaid with single-parent sentimentality, not to mention the notion that it’s OK to cheat as long as you don’t get caught.
It’s sad to report that, along with Tomlin, other notables appearing in the picture are Elaine Stritch and Tom Poston (as Krippendorf’s starchy in-laws) and David Ogden Stiers (as the TV series producer). When it comes to lost tribes, it’s “Krippendorf’s Tribe” that needs to get lost.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual humor. Times guidelines: The sex jokes are exceptionally crude for a family film.
Richard Dreyfuss: Krippendorf
Jenna Elfman: Veronica
Lily Tomlin: Ruth Allen
A Buena Vista Pictures release of Touchstone Pictures presentation. Director Todd Holland. Producer Larry Brezner. Executive producers Whitney Green, Ross Canter. Screenplay by Charlie Peters; from the book by Frank Parkin. Cinematographer Dean Cundey. Editor Jon Poll. Costumes Isis Mussenden. Music Bruce Broughton. Production designer Scott Chambliss. Art director Bill Rea. Set decorator Karen Manthey. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.