Ever since his wife died two years ago during an expedition to New Guinea, anthropologist James Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss) has been an emotional disaster area. His teenage daughter, Shelly (Natasha Lyonne), has had to keep the family in one piece, and the strain of looking after her younger brothers, precocious 12-year-old Mickey (Gregory Smith) and taciturn seven-year-old Edmund (Carl Michael Lindner), has driven a wedge between her and her father.
But that's just the beginning of papa Krippendorf's troubles. He's been goofing off and surviving on the grant money that funded the expedition. Now his karmic debts are coming due: Both his university and the foundation that gave him the grant are eagerly awaiting the first of his series of lectures on the tribe he was supposed to have discovered by now. But there is nothing to lecture about, or from -- no tribe, no coherent notes, not even much background in anthropology, to judge by Krippendorf's complete befuddlement. (The film hints that his wife was the brains of the outfit.)
Forced into a packed lecture hall with only a few hours' warning, Krippendorf has to wing it the only way he can -- by recasting his own lifestyle of the past two years as the culture of an undiscovered primitive tribe. Quickly jumbling together his kids' names into one word, he starts regaling the crowd with tales of the Shelmikedmu, a tribe in which families are composed of children and a single male parent.
He makes it through the first lecture but then discovers -- as if he wouldn't have thought of it already -- that he is expected to present film documentation in future appearances. Luckily for Krippendorf, Mickey is something of a genius. The professor and kids build a hut in the backyard of their suburban house, disguise themselves in tribal makeup, and shoot films of Shelmikedmu rituals, which they later intercut with genuine footage from the expedition.
The scam might be controllable if the rest of the town just left the Krippendorfs to themselves. But the situation is complicated by Veronica (Jenna Elfman), an aggressive colleague who promotes the professor into a national figure by giving him his own show on Primal Time, an all-anthropology cable network. And a jealous faculty member (Lily Tomlin) has already taken off for New Guinea to find proof that Krippendorf is a fraud.
Director Todd Holland, best known for his work on The Larry Sanders Show, helmed this formulaic but funny comedy. What's amazing is how Holland and his cast have managed to entirely avoid the lapses that could have come with the material.
This is, after all, a comedy about a bunch of white people who get up in blackface and bogus tribal costumes and leap around shouting (in effect) "Ooga booga!" Sure, the Shelmikedmu are supposed to be New Guinean, not African, but they're still black. (And many, if not all, of the actors portraying New Guinea natives here are African-American.) It would have been easy for Krippendorf's Tribe to have tipped over into bad taste, if not outright racism.
But, as in George of the Jungle, the filmmakers have been careful to make sure that the jokes are aimed at the more pompous white people. The film is drenched in a kind of good-natured silliness that makes it hard to take offense.
Dreyfuss is in top form, and he's well-matched by Elfman, whose goofy appeal manages to make a potentially abrasive character thoroughly likable. Neither Tomlin nor veterans Elaine Stritch and Tom Poston get to do much of interest, but the leads and the three child actors compensate for this waste of valuable resources. Krippendorf's Tribe is not likely to cross anyone's mind come Oscar time next year, but it more than meets the modest demands of its niche.
-- Andy Klein
Directed by Todd Holland. With Richard Dreyfuss, Jenna Elfman and Lily Tomlin.