The Addams Family (1991)
★★ / ★★★★
Barry Sonnenfeld’s “The Addams Family” could have been just another forgettable live-action film translated directly from a cartoon or television show, but this outing is a real treat—to an extent. Although a comedy for all ages, it is willing to embrace a gothic mood, all the actors command strong presence, and credit to screenwriters Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson for giving every character—even a CGI hand—a specific personality. Take one out and the absence is alarming. The work, however, is let down by a tired plot that goes on for longer than it should.
Every time the material breaks out of the scheme involving a lawyer (Dan Hedaya), a loan shark (Elizabeth Wilson), and the loan shark’s adopted son (Christopher Lloyd) stealing the Addams’ riches, it is almost like an exhalation. It is riotously funny when the eccentric Addams interact with regular folks without a palate for the macabre. A few standout scenes: The mother, Morticia (Anjelica Huston who never fails to milk every second as if it were her last and so we cannot help but be drawn to her), being taken aside by her daughter’s teacher to show a drawing of whom Wednesday (Christina Ricci) had chosen as her hero, Wednesday and Pugsley’s (Jimmy Workman) extremely gory performance at a school talent show, and an exchange at a lemonade stand between the Addams children and a Girl Scout. This is an excellent example of a central plot in excess. It ends up muffling a comedy that ignites seemingly without effort.
And so we sit through increasingly tired sequences of Gordon, the adopted son, disguising himself to be Uncle Fester who’s been missing for twenty-five years. The deceitful trio are convinced that by earning Gomez’ trust (Raul Julia), who they consider to be an idiot, the Addams patriarch will reveal the location of a vault filled with treasures. There are far too many scenes that communicate the same idea or joke: The impersonator has bitten off more than he bargained for because what this family values most is not wealth, their mansion, or otherworldly possessions. What they cherish most are memories, experiences, and family. (Torture, leather, blood-letting, a bit of electrocution, and serving body parts in a dish are icing on the cake.)
I did appreciate, however, that the writers allow Gordon to learn some tricks on the spot. For instance, by looking at old photographs, he attempts to feign possessing certain memories. An antagonist that is adaptable is curious—so there’s some level of entertainment there. Gordon’s mother and the Addams’ lawyer are far less intriguing by comparison. I suppose since they are not as peculiar as the Addams, the approach is to exaggerate behavior in order to make up for it. But that’s an inappropriate approach because greed is given a cartoonish hue instead of embracing the fact that the trait is in everyone. It’s just that some are more consumed by it than others. A little bit of genuine human touch goes a long way even for, or especially in, a comedy.
Still, “The Addams Family” deserves a marginal recommendation for the elements it does get exactly right. The terrific cast coupled with energetic and specific performances elevate what could have been another wan impersonation comedy to a genuine good time for children and children-at-heart alike. When it moves toward darker shades of humor, it tickles the bones.