Addams Family Values (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
The pre-title sequence of “Addams Family Values” is so joyous, energetic, and self-aware, it promises a terrific time for what’s about to come. It delivers in spades. Paul Rudnick’s screenplay breaks away from the heavy plotting that shackled the predecessor and recognizes that the strength of Charles Addams’ characters is rooted upon their morbid but shining personalities. Although the picture commands a comic strip feel, it is the correct approach; it zips right along. Notice that nearly every scene commands a subversive punchline or an ironic touch. It inspires the viewers to catch up to its jokes. And jokes never repeat. This is a sequel with purpose and more follow-ups should follow its example. It doesn’t feel the need to reintroduce its characters for a new audience. Like oil jumping out of a pan, it doesn’t care if you’re ready for the sting.
The central story revolves around a nanny named Debbie Jellinsky (Joan Cusack) who is hired by Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) to care for their infant. Unbeknownst to the hopelessly in love couple, Deb is serial killer known as Black Widow who marries men for their money and kills them during their honeymoon. Her target: Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd).
Something interesting happens early on. The story branches off to Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) being sent to summer camp. This is an excellent decision because not only are the camp scenes riotously funny, it also allows the Addams children to shine outside of the Addams estate and therefore outside of the shadows of their family members. Wednesday and Pugsley trying to murder each other is amusing in and of itself. But it’s so much funnier when these two are forced to interact with “normal” children.
Cusack is able to shine amongst highly eccentric but delightfully charming characters. Her approach is to make Deb larger than life; she may not be as obsessed with pain, torture, and death as the Addams but she does love her jewelry, invaluable paintings, and wealth. Here is an exaggerated character but on a different category. Cusack’s job, in which she excels, is to make her character villainous but at the same time fit within the confines of the Addams universe. Like the wondrous Huston, Cusack slinks and milks every moment the camera is on her. Deb’s motivation may be one-dimensional but the character, in the way she is portrayed, is not. There’s a difference. And the approach works exceedingly well here.
The events at Camp Chippewa are so spot-on that in the middle of it, I wished it were a stand-alone movie. It doesn’t simply cover Wednesday and Pugsley’s shenanigans. Or how they must participate in—yuck—archery and swimming. Or how they must endure group singalongs. Or how they must learn to make—ugh—friends. And share. No, there is surprising humanity, particularly between Wednesday and Joel (David Krumholtz), a boy who is allergic to everything. Real feelings are handled with a delicate touch instead of a hammer—as utilized with the rest of the picture. Such restraint shows that the screenwriter is engaged with the material and that he cares about these characters. He is able to communicate in a subtle way that people who may look weird or come across different have real feelings, too. And I think that’s a great message to give children and remind adults. The jokes therein suggest a large target age demographic.
That’s the basic strategy of “Addams Family Values” directed by Barry Sonnenfeld: Tiptoe between the adult and children storylines without sacrificing an iota of energy along the way. It’s simple but it gets the job done. With its breezy pacing, sharp writing, and inspired line deliveries, there is almost always something to be amused by or downright cackle at. Finally, a movie that does the Addams family justice. It can be done. But it must be done with purpose, confidence, and flavor. And a bit of freshly plucked heart, too.