I told one of my daughters the other day that she should see The In-Laws, the 1979 film starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. It has to be one of the funniest movies of its kind. Coincidentally, as Pat and I were surfing for a movie to watch on the following night, we came across Big Trouble, a 1986 film also starring Falk and Arkin and including Charles Durning, Robert Stack, Beverly D’Angelo, and Valerie Curtin. We watched it. We were disappointed. I have read that this movie, the last directed by John Cassavetes, is a spoof of Double Indemnity and that it contains multiple references to other classic movies. In fact, the commentator on the IMDb website recommends that a viewer see some of these films—and others directed by Cassavetes—before viewing this one. That’s too much work, but I can verify the commentator’s prediction that a viewer who doesn’t undertake the prerequisites is unlikely to understand or appreciate Big Trouble.


Arkin plays Leonard Hoffman, an agent for a large insurance company, whose wife, Arlene (Valerie Curtin), is hell-bent on sending their musically talented triplet sons to Yale. But an expected scholarship did not materialize, and Leonard is becoming unstrung under the pressure of his wife’s ambition for the boys. While this crisis is simmering, Hoffman is asked by a blonde beauty named Blanche Rickey (Beverly D’Angelo) to make a house call to write a homeowner’s policy on the mansion she occupies with her adventurer-husband, Steve (Peter Falk). She tells Leonard that Steve’s health is very fragile; in fact, he isn’t likely to live much longer. Leonard, in turn, marvels at the fact that there is no life insurance policy on Steve. From this conversation there flows a complicated and wacky chain of events through which we learn—as though life hadn’t told us so often enough—that things aren’t always what they seem.

ALAN ARKIN and ROBERT STACK, who plays the head of the insurance firm that employs Leonard Hoffman.

ALAN ARKIN and ROBERT STACK, who plays the head of the insurance firm that employs Leonard Hoffman.

There are some laughs in this movie—many of them emanating from the combined personalities of Falk and Arkin—including a scene in which Steve offers and Leonard reluctantly accepts a glass of “sardine liqueur,” something that Steve assures Leonard is almost impossible to find. But the movie overall is bizarre and unsatisfying—unless, of course, you’ve done your research.

See The In-Laws.



We watched the 2009 movie, “City Island,” starring Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies with an Alan Akin-esque supporting role for Alan Arkin.

This is an edgy and often humorous story, written and directed by Raymond DeFelitta, about a dysfunctional family living on an island in The Bronx. Vince Rizzo (Garcia) is a corrections officer who doesn’t like to be called a “prison guard” and who really wants to be an actor. He steals off to Manhattan to attend an acting class led by the grizzled but insightful Michael Malakov (Arkin). Vince assumes that his wife, Joyce (Margulies) would ridicule his ambition, so he explains his weekly absences by saying he is playing poker. She thinks he’s having an affair.

The Rizzos have a son and a daughter together. Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) secretly has a feeding fetish, and Vivian – played by Garcia’s daughter, Dominik (sic) – is a college student who secretly has lost her scholarship and is stripping to earn tuition money.

Vivian reluctantly comes home on a break at about the same time that Vince realizes that a new prison inmate is his son, Tony (Steven Strait), the product of a liaison Vince had while he was still in his late teens. In keeping with the family practice, Vince has not told Joyce about this.


Not one to complicate matters by thinking them through, Vince tells Tony only that Tony’s dissolute mother was a “friend,” and he arranges to have Tony released in his custody. He takes Tony home, giving Joyce only the explanation he had given Tony, and the result is even more dissent in the Rizzo household.

Meanwhile, Vince has developed a close, but not romantic, relationship with Molly (Emily Mortimer), a fellow student in Malakov’s class. Molly – who has secrets of her own – pushes Vince to have more confidence in his prospects as an actor. He inadvertently jars her into reconsidering some of the lies she has been living.

The quirky characters, odd-ball story, and strong performances by all the actors make this movie unpredictable and compelling. The environment adds to the interest. The film was shot on location at City Island which looks as if it’s a piece of New England that wandered away and couldn’t find its way back. The characteristics of the place – at least as Vince describes them in the movie – provide a credible context for his self-image and his behavior.


It’s almost always a treat to find Alan Arkin in a movie. He is in his element in this one, playing a crusty drama teacher who is up to here with actors who want to emulate Marlon Brando. Malakov is especially impatient with students who inexplicably pause instead of speaking their dialogue – a Brando trade mark. Presumably, Malakov wouldn’t have had much time for William Shatner. Vince, as it happens, is a Brando devotee.

This movie makes a point about the consequences of deceit among people whose relationship implies intimacy. It may be an obvious point, but the empirical evidence is that it can’t be made too often.

Vince Rizzo studies up on Marlon Brando in "City Island"


We watched “Jakob the Liar,” a 1999 film starring its executive producer, Robin Williams.

In this story based on Jurek Becker’s novel, Williams plays the title role, a man confined to a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II. Jakob is summoned to the commandancy of the ghetto for being in the street after curfew, and while he is in an SS officer’s quarters, he hears a radio news report to the effect that the Red Army is advancing in the vicinity of the ghetto.

Alan Arkin and Liev Schreiber

When Jakob gives this information to his fellow inmate, Mischa (Liev Schreiber), Mischa draws the conclusion that Jakob himself has a radio — an offense punishable by death in the ghetto. Mischa shares his suspicion with others and soon the story is all over the ghetto, and nothing Jakob can say will put it to rest. The inmates beg him for more promising news, and he finally decides to lift their spirits by making up more “news” about the impending end of the war.


Jakob’s position becomes increasingly precarious, and it isn’t helped any by the fact that he is sheltering a young girl (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) who avoided boarding the transport that carried her parents to a death camp.

Given the fact that this movie features Williams in a dramatic role, includes fine actors such as Bob Balaban and Alan Arkin, and deals with this particular historical epoch, we expected to like it. We found, however, that the sum of the parts leaves the whole lacking.

The film is tedious and in some particulars implausible — for example, a scene in which Jakob defies and even intimidates an SS officer who, under real circumstances, would have shot him on the spot. And while Roberto Benigni proved that humor could be mixed into a serious Holocaust story, this film doesn’t strike the delicate balance between the two that the Italian movie achieved.