Using an exotic culture as an American comedic foil is a vaguely tacky Disney specialty usually associated with Tim Allen. In Krippendorf’s Tribe, Richard Dreyfuss assumes the position, playing James Krippendorf, a widowed anthropology professor who takes grant money earmarked for the study of a rare New Guinea culture and spends it on raising his three obstreperous kids. Caught unprepared to present a lecture on his research, Krippendorf punts, inventing stories about a tribe inspired by his own wild children. And to back up his findings, he gets the kids to dress native and go ooga booga for the camera. Hilarity and healing are intended to ensue.
They don’t, in part because a plot of such forced family-friendly wackiness cries out for Allen-style astringency, rather than Dreyfuss-type exasperation. In fact, the shrieking broadness of the concept defeats a brigade of TV-trained talents, including director Todd Holland — a hero, in my book, for his Emmy-winning direction of The Larry Sanders Show. Dharma & Greg‘s’ Jenna Elfman twinkles and mugs to no specific purpose as a supportive colleague; Stephen Root, Elaine Stritch, Tom Poston, and David Ogden Stiers also come and go, gasping for air. In the end, only Lily Tomlin remains standing, because she seizes on her outsize role as a scheming academic competitor (decked out in ethnic schmattes) with the kind of maniacal abandon a movie about mud-encrusted tribespeople requires, in the laws of the comedy jungle.