Frenetic, formulaic and instantly forgettable, "Krippendorf's Tribe'' is a tepid one-joke comedy about a widowed anthropologist who employs his three children in a plot to fake the existence of an "undiscovered" New Guinea tribe.

Frenetic, formulaic and instantly forgettable, “Krippendorf’s Tribe” is a tepid one-joke comedy about a widowed anthropologist who employs his three children in a plot to fake the existence of an “undiscovered” New Guinea tribe. Despite the marquee allure of top-billed Richard Dreyfuss and Jenna Elfman (of TV’s “Dharma & Greg”), pic isn’t likely to be discovered by many ticket buyers. Expect a fast theatrical play-off, followed by modest action on cassette and cable.

Dreyfuss plays James Krippendorf, a respected academic who’s driven to desperate measures by financial imperatives. During the opening credits, Krippendorf and his wife, Jennifer (Barbara Williams), another anthropologist, bring their children along for a journey to the wilds of New Guinea, where they try, and fail, to find a lost tribe.

Action picks up two years after the wife’s unexplained death, to find a chronically disorganized Krippendorf back in the U.S., struggling with the demands of single parenthood. Unfortunately, he has spent all of his foundation grant money to provide for his dysfunctional kids. Even more unfortunately, he’s supposed to give a campus lecture about his New Guinea expedition — and back it up with documentation of the tribe he never managed to locate.

Anxious to avoid public humiliation — and possible criminal charges for misusing grant money — Krippendorf brazens his way through the lecture. He claims to have actually found the Shelmikedmu, an imaginary tribe he names after his children: Shelly (Natasha Lyonne), Mickey (Gregory Smith) and Edmund (Carl Michael Linder). But of course, his problems don’t end there. Told that he must produce 16mm movies of the tribe, Krippendorf disguises his children as tribespeople, dresses his back yard to look like a Shelmikedmu village, and shoots a “documentary” that he edits into footage of a genuine New Guinea tribe.

Further complications are generated by the insistent interference of Veronica Micelli (Elfman), a beautiful and ambitious young anthropologist who’s eager to hitch her wagon to Krippendorf’s rising star. She contacts a cable TV producer (David Ogden Stiers) who in turn makes a generous bid for additional material on the Shelmikedmu. So Krippendorf fakes more footage — hey, he has to pay the mortgage — and dons native disguise to play a key role in new scenes of tribal life.

As demand for footage increases, Krippendorf must go to ever more elaborate extremes. At one point, he gets Veronica drunk, seduces her — and then somehow convinces her to “go native.” They paint and dress themselves as Shelmikedmu before an evening of spirited lovemaking, which Krippendorf secretly films for a TV special on the tribe’s mating rituals.

Here and elsewhere in “Krippendorf’s Tribe,” director Todd Holland (a veteran of cable TV’s “The Larry Sanders Show”) comes perilously close to turning his comedy into a ’90s version of a minstrel show. It’s more than a little disconcerting to see a contemporary pic that tries to get laughs by having white actors cavort comically in blackface. Holland provides some counterbalance by featuring South African-born Zakes Mokae as an intelligent and helpful New Guinea tribesman. Still, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if pressure groups condemn “Krippendorf” as being, at best, racially insensitive.

There’s a kernel of a clever idea in Charlie Peters’ derivative screenplay (adapted from a book by Frank Parkin). When Krippendorf begins his hoax, he tries to establish the Shelmikedmu as a tribe that greatly reveres single fathers as beneficent providers. Obviously, he’s projecting his own home situation into the fabricated account, in part to mend fences with his resentful kids. For their part, the kids — even the smart-mouthed Shelly — do indeed draw closer to their father as they act as co-conspirators in a fraud.

All of which leads one to expect that “Krippendorf’s Tribe” is intended as a pic that parents can enjoy with their children. Which is why, in this context, the inclusion of sexually suggestive dialogue and situations is all the more jarring. When Krippendorf makes his move on Veronica by complimenting her beauty, she responds: “Are you just saying that because I’m holding your penis?” At that point, some parents will be ready to drag their little ones out of the theater.

Everything leads to a fancy-dress banquet sequence that has Krippendorf disguised as a visiting Shelmikedmu tribesman. This prompts a great deal of thoroughly predictable and tediously unimaginative farce, followed by a happily-ever-after ending that is scarcely more credible than anything else in the pic.

Dreyfuss seldom slips out of his manic mode, but his performance comes off as a model of restraint when compared with Elfman’s disappointingly shrill turn as Veronica. Lily Tomlin is largely wasted as the villain of the piece, a rival anthropologist who’s jealous enough, and smart enough, to doubt Krippendorf’s claims. Other supporting players go through the motions without making significant impact.

Lenser Dean Cundey does a first-rate job of making Krippendorf’s fake tribal scenes look like hand-held 16mm documentary footage. Other tech credits are routine.

Krippendorf's Tribe

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Mora-Brezner-Steinberg-Tenenbaum/Dreyfuss-James production. Produced by Larry Brezner. Executive producers, Whitney Green, Ross Canter. Directed by Todd Holland. Screenplay, Charlie Peters, based on the book by Frank Parkin.

With

James Krippendorf - Richard Dreyfuss Veronica Micelli - Jenna Elfman Shelly - Natasha Lyonne Mickey - Gregory Smith Edmund - Carl Michael Linder Gerald Adams - Stephen Root Irene Harding - Elaine Stritch Gordon Harding - Tom Poston Henry Spivey - David Ogden Stiers Ruth Allen - Lily Tomlin President Porter - Doris Belack Simon Alonso - Julio Oscar Mechoso Lori Hayward - Siobhan Fallon Jennifer Krippendorf - Barbara Williams Sulukim - Zakes Mokae
Camera (Technicolor), Dean Cundey; editor, Jon Poll; music, Bruce Broughton; production design, Scott Chambliss; art direction, Bill Rea; set decoration, Karen Manthey; costume design, Isis Mussenden; sound (Dolby Digital), James F. Webb; assistant director, Ellen H. Schwartz; casting, Jackie Burch. Reviewed at Loews Fountains Theater, Houston, Feb. 21, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 94 min.
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