"The Addams Family" is doubtless something to see, but after you've looked it over, you'll wonder if in fact you've seen anything at all.
Because although this is a film where everything is visually correct, where endless arresting decorating details are piled one on top of the other like a Melrose Avenue shop run amok, all that physical splendor serves only to point up how lacking this film is in any other ways to hold our interest.
The opening scene is a hint of things to come. It is Christmas Eve and a bunch of fresh-faced carolers stand in front of a rather imposing mansion, singing their little hearts out. The camera pans up and there is the entire Addams clan, captained by proud parents Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) preparing to empty the contents of a particularly nasty caldron on the heads of their unsuspecting guests.
In and of itself, that little scene is just right, a perfect visualization of the wicked cartoons that Charles Addams drew for decades for the New Yorker about a bizarre family of very sinister but somehow middle-class ghouls. The problem is that instead of progressing dramatically, the rest of "The Addams Family" (citywide, rated PG-13) turns out to be an interminable series of such elaborate set pieces. Even if one could list the film's limitless supply of elaborate visual gags and tricks, the result would ruin the movie, because those gimmicks are all there is to it.
Although the press kit takes pains not to mention it, "The Addams Family" is clearly a direct descendant of the mid-1960s TV show that starred John Astin as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as Morticia. And a probable cause for the film turning out so lacking in drama is that, very much like "Batman," it came about not due to any writer having a killer idea for a script but because producers and studio executives believed that the TV show had created enough name recognition to make the subject a high-concept natural.
Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson, who between them have worked on Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands," were understandable choices to bring these Addams chronicles to life, but they (with the uncredited help of Paul Rudnick) have come up with the most modest of plots, involving hidden treasure, a crooked lawyer (Dan Hedaya) and a mother-obsessed yegg (Christopher Lloyd) who may or may not be Gomez's long-lost brother Fester.
Not only is that premise not very involving, but the whole concept of seeing the Addamses in the flesh, talking lovingly about murder and mayhem and teaching their children to literally live up to the family motto "We gladly feast on those who would subdue us," turns out to be only fitfully amusing. Both Julia and Huston look perfect and bring tremendous polish to their roles, but arch dialogue like "Unhappy darling?" "Oh, yes, yes, completely!" wears thin faster than you might think.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose debut this is, was clearly hired (as per his background as cinematographer for the Coen Brothers) to use his imagination to animate this tale and bring it, such as it is, to life. With the bravura help of production designer Richard MacDonald and costume designer Ruth Myers, Sonnenfeld does provide the necessary visual panache, but there is more to a successful movie than looking good. The problem with "The Addams Family" is not in the quality of what it provides, but in the quantity of what it leaves out.
'The Addams Family'
Anjelica Huston: Morticia Addams
Raul Julia: Gomez
Christopher Lloyd: Fester
Christina Ricci: Wednesday Addams
Jimmy Workman: Pugsley Addams
Judith Malina: Granny
Carel Struycken: Lurch
Elizabeth Wilson: Abigail Craven
Dan Hedaya: Tully
Dana Ivey: Margaret
Released by Paramount Pictures. Director Barry Sonnenfeld. Producer Scott Rudin. Executive producer Graham Place. Screenplay by Caroline Thompson & Larry Wilson, based on the characters created by Charles Addams. Cinematographer Owen Roizman. Editor Dede Allen. Costumes Ruth Myers. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design Richard MacDonald. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
RELATED STORIES: E8, F22