Unlikely, and that’s the point

Special to The Times

Abbott and Costello. Rowan and Martin. Hope and Crosby. Burns and Allen.

Douglas and Brooks?

Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks haven’t exactly joined the pantheon of immortal comic teams, but they give it their best shot in the Warner Bros. film “The In-Laws,” opening Friday. Based very loosely on the 1979 comedy starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, the movie features Brooks as an uptight Chicago podiatrist who, because their children are about to get married, becomes involved with wild and crazy CIA operative Michael Douglas.

On the eve of the wedding, the two are forced to team up in an effort to stop a French smuggler and arms dealer (played by English actor David Suchet) from acquiring a nuclear submarine. Douglas, 58, mugs for all he’s worth in a shamelessly entertaining, hammy performance, while Brooks, 55, adds his familiar whiny neurotic persona to the mix -- and in one of “The In-Law’s” wildest scenes, steps out of a hot tub wearing only a thong.


In person, the two stars seem to play off each other as well as they do on-screen. Eating he-man lunches of rare sirloin, Caesar salad and iced tea, they discussed the film, their collaboration and why Brooks was willing to show his butt on-screen.

The 1979 original is a revered cult film. Do you worry about going into something like this?

Brooks: I did, more than Michael. He’s a little more confident.

Douglas: Ignorant.


Brooks: The premise of two different guys meeting at a wedding you can’t own for life. For that reason, I think this is allowed to be redone.

Douglas: I had seen it a long time ago, and there was no similarity to the original, except maybe for our two characters. And I thought with the different titles ...

Brooks: Originally it was called “ ‘Til Death Do Us Part,” then “The Wedding Party.” There was a six-month period when it was “The Wedding Party.” So here’s the conversation: “Are you in a movie?” “Yeah.” “What’s it called?” “Wedding Party.” “Uh-huh. What’s it about?” “It’s a remake of ‘The In-Laws’ ” “Oh!” So you just give it up. You just do it.

Albert, do you ever get tired of playing the whiny neurotic type?


Brooks: I don’t look at these things as whiny neurotic. This guy to me is a pretty normal guy. He’s not bothering anybody, he’s got a family, he’s got a business.

Douglas: I think of it as urban angst.

Brooks (to Douglas): I don’t think this guy’s whiny, do you?

Douglas: You know, “the food’s burnt,” this and that ...


Brooks: I’ve played other parts too, but they were movies nobody saw. “My First Mister” was a clothing salesman dying of cancer. The part in “Out of Sight” was Michael Milken. This is sort of bringing that guy to the most amount of theaters I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve never brought the Whiny Neurotic Guy to 3,000 theaters.

In your case, Michael, you’re so out there. Is a part like this liberating?

Douglas: I just wanted to do something fun, and loose, and different, not to do another psychological thriller where I try to kill my wife or something. Andy Fleming [the director] made it one of the nicest experiences I’ve ever had working on a picture, and for this kind of picture, that’s the kind of image you want. I don’t work well in a comedy where there’s a lot of pressure.

So it was a chance to do something different, and I haven’t done a buddy picture in awhile.


How do you describe your process, in terms of how you develop the character and how you work with each other?

Brooks: In my own mind, I have to find a way to convince myself that it’s the podiatrist falling off the building, not Albert. And you may see it or not, it doesn’t matter to me; I have to do it or I can’t show up to work. My process is how to ground this broader comedy that I’m used to ...

[At this point we’re interrupted by the very loud ringing of Douglas’ cell phone. It’s a call from his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Douglas tells her he’s in the middle of an interview and will call back. When he hangs up, Brooks says, “By the way. Did you talk to your wife today?”].

... You have to keep in mind who you’re playing. There’s a moment in the movie I like -- I’m on the chaise longue with David Suchet, and he says his foot hurts, and as nervous as I am, I say, “Let me take a look at it.”


Michael, you’re so manic in the picture. Sometimes I felt I was watching a spy spoof like “Our Man Flint.” What do you need to do?

Douglas: I kind of look at it externally. What is my responsibility to make the movie work? I look at pace, how Albert’s character is. Do I create a threat in a scene? Suspense? An edge? And what the pace of the piece is.

Both your roles could be so over the top. How do you keep them from getting that way?

Douglas: This is not a general area, for me, broad comedy. So it was awkward for me to get broad or big.


Brooks: Me, too. ‘Cause I’d never been in a thong before. I’m hanging out there by a thread, too.

Albert, you’re a writer-director. Michael, you’ve been a producer. When you’re making a film for someone else, do you have to hold yourself back and say, “OK, I’ll put myself in your hands”?

Douglas: It depends who the director is. If it’s a person who’s going to be totally autonomous and is gonna be “it’s my baby,” then we’re gonna be in for a long road, all the way down the line. They won’t listen to suggestions, they’ll run over schedule....

Brooks: I don’t think the writing part should be set in stone. And they expect it. If I never said a word, I think they would feel gypped. Directing, I don’t think either of us got involved in.


The villain in the film is the distinguished British actor David Suchet, a guy who’s used to doing really serious parts.

Douglas: He’s a brilliant actor.

Brooks: He’s the hammiest guy I’ve ever seen, and I mean that as a compliment.

Douglas: He can roll the eyes, he loves the shtick, and he’s off.


Brooks: I thought we were doing “The Birdcage” after working with him. And we lucked out, because what better time to have a French villain? That was good timing. [He turns to Douglas.] That “China Syndrome” timing.

Both of you are late-life fathers. [Douglas has a 2-year-old boy and a baby girl with Zeta-Jones. Brooks has a 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.] Has that affected your work in any way?

Brooks: When you see how much it costs to put 4-year-olds in school, you’re willing to show your [butt]. Their preschool costs more than my college.

Douglas: You’re secure in yourself and your work, you don’t have anything more to prove to yourself or to others. So if you say I want to do a wild comedy like this, how much of it is affected by “cootchy cootchy coo,” there’s probably a bit. You’re at ease with yourself.


Brooks: I did this lead character in [the upcoming animated film] “Finding Nemo.” I know that this [“Nemo”] will be cooler; it will mean a lot to my 3-year-old. But if you find me one day saying that’s why I’m doing dinner theater, punch me; it’s over. “Hey, I’m doing ‘Mary, Mary’ ‘cause I have kids!”

Any tips for working together as a team? Especially when you have a buddy comedy like this one?

Brooks: I don’t know if it’s any different than working with anybody in a scene. You gotta listen, you gotta react.

Douglas: Sometimes people worry about themselves a little too much, rather than making sure it’s working. Worrying about somebody else, rather than yourself, it works a little better that way.


Brooks: When you’re making a movie you have to think about the movie, at the risk of anything you’re doing. When I first started, I used to think “you stole the movie” was a good thing. It’s a bad thing. It means the movie wasn’t strong enough. You don’t want to steal the movie.

You worked so well as a team. If you could compare yourselves to a famous comedy duo, which would it be?

Brooks: For me, I felt like two kinds of comedians in this movie. With Michael, I felt more like Martin and Lewis. But when I was with David Suchet, I felt like Jack Benny; there was this stare [he imitates Benny’s deadpan head-in-hand pose] while this guy was trying to attack me.

Douglas: I would have loved to have thought of myself as Cary Grant in the latter part of his career. When he got a little older, he was very charming and kinda funny.


Brooks: Pre-acid?

Do you worry about what will happen when you’re 60 or 65, and what kind of roles you’ll get?

Douglas: I can’t worry about it when you see what women have to go through in their careers. Right now, I see guys older than I am, whether it be Jack [Nicholson] or Anthony Hopkins, who have careers. But I’m very happy to be married right now, I’d hate to be going into my 60s single, only worried about my motion picture career.

Brooks: The biggest age group of all is our age group. I’ve always believed our age group is not saying every Friday night, “Let’s go see 23-year-olds in a movie.” Gee, there are stories that go all the way out to death. And if you have good stories, you have to have 70-year-old guys in it.


Douglas: It’s an interesting question vis-a-vis a movie like this opening on Memorial Day weekend.

Brooks: People do still leave their house when they’re in their 50s. Warner Bros. is doing a special thing -- they’re putting ramps in every theater for this film. I think their slogan is “Wheel Over to See ‘The In-Laws.’ ”