Writing About Film

The Addams Family, 1991They Sell What They Wanna Sell

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, self-imitation is praise beyond compare.

The Addams Family (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991)

In These Times, 1991


The Addams Family TV show, which ran for two seasons in the mid-1960s, was raucous, occasionally subversive fun, which probably accounts for its perseverance as a cultural referent, particularly among those of us who constitute the "leftysomething" generation. I looked eagerly to Paramount's movie adaptation for more of the same, but unfortunately, what it accomplishes visually it loses in translation.

Personally, I adored the show's chaotic texture, that the Addamses were such a bizarre, dysfunctional, and yet completely happy family. I identified with their otherness, and found comfort that there was at least one other household in the world that didn't possess an easy chair. On one hand the Addames were tied to the passé conventions of Western civilization — their tchotchka-filled home, Gomez's pinstriped suits, and Morticia's perfect manners — and on the other, to the romance of mid-60s American society in upheaval — their commune-like self-sufficiency, the parents' open sexuality, and their eccentric cultural tastes.

The film first looks to be following in the TV program's quirky footprints, but it soon becomes apparent that its aesthetics are merely superficial. The movie's strength is visual, as it fleshes the black-and-white cutouts of the show into vibrant animation. Its texture is thoroughly contemporary, evoking any one of Tim Burton's various faux-blockbusters: not so much dark and brooding as tinged with music video-flash and ambience. As in 1964, the Addams's gothic mansion towers ominously above the family plot, and the air again prickles with macabre humor, verbal (and actual) dueling, and gruesomely suggestive innuendo. Morticia is creepily beautiful, Gomez is bug-eyed and dashing, and Uncle Fester still sucks lightbulbs. The roles are perfectly captured, respectively, by Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, and Christopher Lloyd, though equal credit belongs to makeup designer Fern Buchner and costumer Ruth Myers. As for the other players, Christina Ricci as Wednesday, the youngest Addams child, is particularly notable: she carries the haunting beauty of a fine-lined cartoon and imbues her character with a sublime morbidity. In fact, when Wednesday straps brother Pugsley into an electric chair for a round of her favorite game, "Is There a God?" one almost believes the film is going to take off.

But the plot, concerning the mysterious reappearance of Uncle Fester after a 25-year absence, is by far the movie's weakest spot, and the difficulty it caused during shooting is already legend. Fear of the story's vacuousness leading to the movie's downfall, especially as costs kept rising, may well have been the final incentive for cash-hungry Orion to sell the production to Paramount (the film's final tally is approximated to be at least $30 million). Even after numerous script revisions, director Barry Sonnenfeld acknowledges that the film "doesn't have a really good plot."[Entertainment Weekly] His tactful admission is given emphasis by the movie's frenetic action and overflowing bag of visual tricks: moving cameras, odd angles, and special effects abound.

The film's strongest — and most repulsive — similarity to a commercial TV show is its product-placement: one segment features a now-ambulatory Thing carting a wagonload of neatly stacked Federal Express packages around an office. This and a shameless plug for Sally Jessy Raphael are by way of the talents of Rogers and Cowan, Inc., credited onscreen alongside Huston, Julia, and world famous mumbler (ex-MC) Hammer, who provides the film's torpid theme music.

In what seems a desperate attempt to camouflage that the cinematic product is so slavishly emulative of the sitcom, Sonnenfeld and producer Scott Rudin fill the movie's production notes with elegiac references to Charles Addams, the longtime New Yorker satirist who featured the family in many of his cartoon tableaus. Sonnenfeld goes so far as to claim that "I felt as if the entire body of [Addams's] work was looking down on me, giving encouragement and making sure I was faithful to those images." The movie's onscreen attempts to refer to Addams's old drawings are equally pandering. The opening shot, for instance, is a live-action pan-up of Addams's well-known image of oblivious Christmas carolers about to be drenched in boiling oil by the mischievous family. Such devices, although amusing, work more effectively on the page than on the screen, and serve only to halt the action as the visual one-liners sink in. The filmic references to Addams's sketches do no more than coax a knowing nod from those who make the necessary connections. For others, I suspect, the joke passes right on over.

The silence surrounding the original show, whose rights were retained by Orion, becomes increasingly obvious as the publicity surrounding the film grows more hysterical. The irony is that Addams himself was integral to the old show's creation: he named the characters especially for it (despite being told he couldn't christen Pugsley "Pubert"), and developed the sitcom's concept. If Sonnenfeld and Co. give their protests a rest, they'll realize that so desperately trying to link themselves with the icon of Addams's cartoons is futile anyhow — it does nothing for filmgoers who grew up on the TV show and who, for good or naught, hold no such literary pretensions.

The Addams Family film has its strengths: it's often chaotically hilarious, shows occasional flashes of subversive wit, and is visually dynamic. There's no difference to the movie, however, and it fades quickly in the memory. The film's huge opening weekend, however — the largest-grossing since this summer's Terminator 2 — prove that image and style are the only qualities which really count. Who knows? the ironic — and inevitable — result of The Addams Family's success will probably be a TV spinoff. Sonnenfeld and Rudin don't understand how truly original they are; next time they won't feel the need to justify themselves. The reassuring repetition of past experience, as exemplified by syndicated TV, is one of the lone constants in our frightening world — with the new world order on the horizon, it's no wonder that people need a comforting squeeze from the old electric teddy bear.

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