Addams Family Values

Dir: Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993. Starring: Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Christina Ricci, Joan Cusack. Comedy.
Addams Family Values

Since they all seemed to spring from The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, early sitcoms mostly followed the same basic comedy concept: the battle-of-the-sexes, men-vs-women formula. Breaking that rule is one of the many traits that made The Addams Family TV show and the two big screen movies so different and special. Here instead of bickering and plotting against each other, the married couple have a passionate and deeply sexual love, leaving most comedy hacks at a loss for creating conflict. And in the case of the films directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the even bigger ace-in-the-hole is the brilliant casting of the couple, Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as Gomez and Morticia Addams (taking over for John Astin and Carolyn Jones who were pretty fantastic themselves on the small screen). The first Addams Family flick was the directing debut of Sonnenfeld, who had made a name for himself as the cinematographer of the first three Coen Brothers films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, which had a then completely fresh look to them). Here he combines his zapped-up camera energy with a Tim Burton-like appreciation for the comically macabre (the first film was written by some of the writers of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice). That first Addams Family movie was good but the second one, Addams Family Values, proves to be one of the rare sequels that is even better than the original.

Based on Charles Addams' now legendary cartoon for The New Yorker depicting the bizarre and wealthy family that skewered traditional family values, they horrified all the straight people who encountered them, and although not self-aware were totally confident in their own beings. The first film gave us the basic update of the show; Gomez and Morticia are the heads of an eclectic family clan of eccentrics that includes their daughter, gloomy Wednesday (Christina Ricci, born to play the role), their son Pugsley (not as funny as the chubby kid on the show) and the witchy Grandmama (played by Judith Malina in the first one and Carol Kane in the sequel). Also hanging around are their Frankenstein’s monster-looking valet/butler Lurch (the film version is not nearly as memorable as the TV version played by the giant actor Ted Cassidy) and their devoted assistant Thing, a disembodied hand, who really gets to shine in the movies with the help of technology. Both films really revolve around Gomez’s brother, Uncle Fester, played here by Christopher Lloyd much more grotesquely then Jackie Coogan’s TV version. Lloyd, with his gravely voice, comes off like a sheepish version of Murnau’s Nosferatu as opposed to Coogan, who is just a fat guy with a high pitched voice, but who is very funny. The first film revolved around crooks trying to swindle the Addams’ fortune by having a guy pose as Fester (similar to the plot of the second Brady Bunch movie, A Very Brady Sequel), and in the end it turned out the impostor was actually the real Fester.

The first film ended with Morticia telling Gomez she was pregnant, and Addams Family Values begins with the birth of the new mustached baby boy. From there the main plot points are the lonely Fester seeking a wife and eventually being taken in by a black widow husband killer named Debbie (played by Joan Cusack, continuing her string of stealing most of the movies she was in). In order to get the suspicious kids out of her way, she convinces the Addams to send Wednesday and Pugsley off to a WASPy summer camp (run by the psychotically enthusiastic Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski). I had initially wished the first Addams Family film had taken place in the early '60s, when conformity was pushed on Americans like a cult. The modernization of the family seemed not needed. But with the summer camp stuff, the characters live up to the potential of contrast with the superficiality of modern life. The camp also gives the young Ricci a chance to shine with more than just goth deadpanning; in a clever twist she finds love with a sorta equal outcast, the neurotic Joel Glicker (played by David Krumholtz, channeling his own take on the younger version of Woody Allen in Annie Hall). And it’s in the violent destruction of a Thanksgiving pageant that Wednesday’s total act of rebellious sabotage gives the film its greatest moment, making the Addams more than just passive kooks, but actual anarchists in the Marx Brothers tradition.

The list of classic television shows getting turned into good big screen movies is small. The Fugitive was solid, the Mission Impossible films have had moments of excitement, and The Brady Bunch films were sloppy but enjoyable. Actually Addams Family Values may be the best of the bunch. (Of more recent adaptations, I’ve liked the two 21 Jump Street flicks and of course, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is maybe a masterpiece.) And as far as sequels go, we won’t attempt to compare it to The Road Warrior or The Godfather Part Two, but it’s on the list. It managed to take an already fun little film and expand and build on it. Addams Family Values is not a retread; it stands alone and it’s incredibly creative. Apparently it didn’t do as well at the box office as the first film, killing the chance for a third. Down the road when the inevitable reboot happens, whoever is behind it needs to remember what made it work so well is the heart, and at its heart this film is really about a family that loves each other-- which is not usually a fountain of inspiration for conflict-driven comedies.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 19, 2015 12:40pm
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