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MOVIE REVIEW : A Silly Mix of Bad Ideas in 'Son-in-Law'

July 02, 1993|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One problem of comedy stardom is that it confers sexiness and power on performers whose humor may rely on stupidity or banality. When that happens, the star comics may lose their edge and craziness and turn into goodwill hucksters.

That's what goes wrong with the strenuously silly comedy "Son-in-Law" (citywide), a Pauly Shore vehicle in which MTV's chilled-out, syllable-stretching denizen of "Dudesville" plays a fish out of water: an L.A. college pal of South Dakota farmgirl Rebecca (Carla Gugino), hauled home for a Thanksgiving weekend and erroneously palmed off as a prospective husband.

Pauly's character, Crawl, and the family he invades--which features Lane Smith and Cindy Pickett as the parents, Mason Adams (of the ultimate creamy TV commercial voice) as Grandpa and Patrick Renna as younger brother Zack--are conceived in the broadest sitcom-sketch terms. Dad is upright, uptight. Mom is neurotic, repressed. Gramps just wants to whittle on the porch, fish and complain. Tubby little redhead Zack is a wise-cracking cutup and computer whiz.

There's also a burly mean farmhand named Theo (Dennis Burkeley) and a mean ex-boyfriend (Dan Gauthier). As for Rebecca, she's another fast-pitch mall-movie dream: the South Dakota prom queen-valedictorian Crawl turns into a Melrose drop-dead hotter in miniskirts, hair dye, boob tubes and butterfly tattoos.

The movie tries to pretend that it's about tolerance: a kind of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" about anti-L.A. freak bigotry. But its deck is stacked in the usual obvious ways. Crawl is a genuine jerk when he shows up at the farm, warbling "Green Acres" and making pig jokes at the Warners' expense, destroying farm equipment and cornfields with blithe abandon, acting as if everything will be straightened out if he just writes a check. We're supposed to forget all this when his eyes go soft and he turns into the local guru of sexiness and funky fashion, remaking the whole family into kinder, gentler swingers.

"Son-in-Law" suggests that somebody like Crawl would be as weird as a lunar being to the Midwestern Warners. That isn't so. Because of TV and the movies, L.A. subcultures are the ones everyone knows about. Stoners like Crawl are familiar types nationwide--ever since 1982 and the movie role that spawned them all: Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." In any town within reach of cable TV, the teen-agers would not only recognize a Pauly, there might be imitation Paulys at the high school.

The writers and director Steve Rash have another half-baked angle: Crawl as ambassador of ambisexuality. At one point he dresses up like Carmen Miranda, complete with bananas and brassiere. Since the two villains--Theo, the farmhand bully, and Travis, the evil Tom Cruise look-alike--are macho men to the max, there's a suggestion that Crawl's strength comes from the way he embraces and flaunts his feminine side. The movie glosses that over too, just as it discreetly smudges the similarities between Crawl's brain-fried mannerisms and druggie tics.

"Son-in-Law" has a bright surface, brisk direction and even a few funny performances (Smith's and Renna's). But it's a double-shuffle, just like the old Rock Hudson-Doris Day sex comedies of the early '60s, packed with laborious innuendoes and slick double-entendres. Despite Crawl's smutty mouth--his continuous references to getting "semis" when he sees attractive women--Crawl and Rebecca have a sexless relationship, and 'Becca, like Doris, is a virgin.

Shore's appeal resides in the fact that a lot of kids think he's just like them, and that he's getting away with murder. Next to the earnest, shampooed, grinning commentators around him on MTV, he doesn't seem to give a damn. Yet, in "Son-in-Law" (rated PG-13) Crawl often seems the phoniest character in the movie. Maybe that's because the writers keep telling us that their "buuuuddd-dy" isn't really such an oddball, that he does care. In the end, you can't have much movie fun with freakiness if you aren't willing to freak the movie out a little.

'Son-in-Law'

Pauly: Shore Crawl

Carla :Gugino Rebecca Warner

Lane Smith: Walter Warner

Cindy Pickett: Connie Warner

A Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Rotenburg/Lenkov production, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution Co. Director Steve Rash. Producers Michael Rotenburg, Peter M. Lenkov. Executive producer Hilton Green. Screenplay by Fax Bahr & Adam Small and Shawn Schepps. Cinematographer Peter Deming. Editor Dennis M. Hill. Costumes Molly Maginnis. Music Richard Gibbs. Production design Joseph T. Garrity. Art director Pat Tagliaferro. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.

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