Dr. James Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss), anthropologist and widower, layabout and fraud, a man possessed of three kids who don’t respect him and a research grant that has long run out, is clearly at the end of his tether. Krippendorf has to deliver a report to his university. Where’s his proof? That is, where’s the documentary evidence of the previously undiscovered New Guinea tribe that he claims to have stumbled across with his late wife some years ago? The tribe, of course, doesn’t exist. Professor Krippendorf bluffs his way through a lecture, concocting the tribal name – the Shelmikedmu (emphasis on the second syllable) – from the names of his three cranky children, Shelly, Mickey, and Edmund. Krippendorf then manufactures, in his suburban backyard, a film illustrating the curious habits of these remarkable people. Dressed in body paint and rings, with white wigs scrunched like sugar donuts about their ears, the Krippendorf children gambol among thatched huts with little pigs and other New Guinea creatures, and perform ritual circumcision – or so it seems – on the youngest boy. Krippendorf and his older son mix in some footage of an actual New Guinea tribe, and the academic audience is fooled. The director, Todd Holland, and the screenwriter, Charlie Peters (adapting a novel by Frank Parkin), don’t bring this out, but it’s implicit in the movie’s entire scheme that the university types, despite their alleged high standards, take a voyeuristic, even pornographic, interest in aboriginal people. Excited by those shocking native customs, they can’t see that the documentary is rubbish. A sycophantic female anthropologist (Jenna Elfman) gets drunk at Krippendorf’s house, and the professor tricks her into wearing native garb; he then puts on tribal-chieftain rig himself and makes a film of the two of them exploring a great many more native customs.
Once it gets going, Krippendorf’s Tribe is pretty damn funny – and at times uproarious – but there’s no use pretending that the comedy is anything but disrespectful and crude. Thrown together without grace or beauty, Krippendorf’s Tribe falls below the level of satire – it’s burlesque, really, the kind of movie that might have been made in the thirties and forties, before Americans had been educated or bullied into respect for native people. As far as this movie is concerned, someone dressed with chicken bones sticking out of his nose is ridiculous, and that’s that. The movie louses up native dress and ritual, body paint and phallus sheaths, and even anthropology in general, which is portrayed as a pretentious crock that could interest no one but phonies. Krippendorf’s nemesis, the head of the department, Dr. Allen (Lily Tomlin), herself discovered a new tribe some twenty years ago and has been dining out on it ever since. She lives by vanity alone, and Tomlin, pale and enraged, makes her a creature of the most extreme paranoia.
Todd Holland has worked as both a producer and a director on The Larry Sanders Show, and he has a TV veteran’s rough-and-ready attitude toward comedy. The camera setups and the line readings are obvious and overemphatic, and Holland allows (or encourages) Jenna Elfman to come on so hard that we have trouble accepting her as a love interest for Richard Dreyfuss – she seems like a creep. The movie might actually have been funnier if it were a little closer to realism; if Holland were able, now and then, to rise above caricature. The university people are all portrayed as jerks; everyone is a jerk except Krippendorf’s three little kids, who are struggling to grow up in the wake of their mother’s death. The title has two meanings – the kids are also Krippendorf’s tribe – and the movie suggests that this self-pitying widower had better discover them before it is too late.
Richard Dreyfuss has always possessed a talent for squashed dignity. Now 50, he seems sadder than before, more resigned. When he shows up at the university disguised as the Shelmikedmu tribal chief, wearing enough feathers, teeth, and whatnot to decorate the entire Banana Republic chain in 1983, he doesn’t do much but grunt and slam the table, but he’s funny anyway. He pours all of Krippendorf’s wounded self-love into the chief’s demand for respect. Krippendorf’s Tribe is too casually made and too silly to take seriously, and yet too funny to ignore. When Dreyfuss and Elfman get interviewed together on TV – he as the chief, she as an anthropologist – the profanities emerge from beneath the pidgin New Guinea they speak to each other. The jokes are the kind of things we laughed at as children in old movies and in slapstick episodes of I Love Lucy. The picture represents a regression, I suppose, though there’s something exhilarating about academic pieties falling to the floor like a tableful of old dishes.