Julia's droll Gomez keeps rickety 'Addams Family' from crumbling

November 22, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The Addams Family" is less a movie than an attitude platform. And the attitude being platformed is simon-pure Charles Addams, that giddy-chilly macabre sensibility that takes its evil comic charge from inversion: "Are you unhappy?" Gomez asks his wife, Morticia. "Completely," she says with a lanquid,satiated sigh.

It's easy to see why the Addams cartoons that appeared in the New Yorker became so popular. They began appearing in the conformist '50s, when their subversive wickedness was bracing. They simply took the conventional wisdom of the age -- that in the era of the man in the gray flannel suit and the families of Levittown, aristocracy was somehow suspect -- and gave it a coldly savage twist into the realm of the pathological.

With their butler, their limousine, their bat-haunted mansion, the Addamses were the aristocracy, so emulated for so long, now sunk into the final, comic phase of decadence. Everything about them -- from their droll understatement to their enviable sangfroid to their creepy brood of utterly calm children -- was vaguely British. They were the Others as lovable maniacs.

The film cleverly pauses to re-create many of Addams' brilliant drawings that appeared over the years, and it also uses the catchy TV theme song. But it is, perhaps unavoidably, far more concerned with the look of things than with the feel of them. We never believe, but that never stops us from laughing.

Presumably there was a lot of laughter about the plot at the story meetings. Plot? What's that? Never heard of it.

What the writers concocted is barely serviceable: A greedy woman and her imbecilic son who bears a passing resemblance to a long-lost Addams, Gomez's brother Fester, concoct a caper to pass him off as Fester so that as an inside man, he can engineer a robbery of the Addams' doubloon-loaded vault. End of plot.

The movie turns on a peculiarity that is central to Addams mythology. That is, though the Addams' clan is given to a lifestyle that might be described as high tea and neo-pagan corpse worship, it is, underneath, childishly sweet.

Yes. Their fundamental innocence is what makes them vulnerable to this absurd plot. The Fester-figure penetrates their lair without much in the way of preparation and quickly begins to subvert them from within -- stupidly, of course (it is a given that everybody in the film except the creepy little daughter Wednesday is stupid).

The cast doesn't act so much as impersonate. Anjelica Huston, a majestic woman and a brilliant actress, gets to use about 2 percent of her talent: mainly she models her cheekbones and delivers droll one-liners. Christopher Lloyd's Fester is probably the weakest major performance.

Fortunately, someone had the wisdom to hire Raul Julia. He's not nearly as interesting here as he was in "Presumed Innocent," but still his effusive spirit pretty much carries the movie. Alternatingly coy and graceful, moronic and charming but always commanding, he gives "The Addams Family" what little weight it has. He will make you completely unhappy.

'The Addams Family'

Starring Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.

Released by Paramount.

Rated PG-13.


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