Krippendorf’s Tribe

(Written for a 2002 “Reviewer Rumble” tournament among contributors.)

In order to find “Krippendorf’s Tribe” funny, you must agree with it on one fundamental principle: Penises are funny.

If you do not hold that truth to be self-evident, there is no hope of your enjoying this movie. Also, if you are above the age of 9, there is no hope of your enjoying this movie. It’s a film aimed at kids that is too lewd to be viewed by them.

Only the people at Disney could come up with such a quandary, and it is Disney (through its Touchstone Pictures division) that inflicted this live-action trainwreck upon the world. Surely Walt spins in his cryogenic chamber when he hears of thoughtless movies like this one being made, movies that obsess over genitalia as though they were fleshy, bulbous deity.

“Krippendorf’s Tribe” stars Richard Dreyfuss, who at one point won an Academy Award, though I think he subsequently traded it for cocaine in an alley. He plays James Krippendorf, an eminent anthropologist whose wife recently died, leaving him with three kids you may have seen in other movies: the Sullen Teen, the Brilliant Boy and the Adorable 5-Year-Old.

As the film begins, James is harassed by an aggressively perky college student named Veronica (Jenna Elfman) who wants to be on his research team. She also casually reminds James that 1) he was given a research grant of $100,000 two years ago; 2) he has wasted all the money on candy and gum; and 3) he is supposed to give a lecture and report his findings TONIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

How could James have forgotten all of this? Easy. He is the world’s stupidest man.

Well, he’s in quite a pickle now, isn’t he? It is difficult to sympathize, for surely no one with capacity to read these words is dumb enough to waste $100,000 of grant money and forget what he was supposed to be doing with it. Do you suppose that every time James bought something expensive, he thought, “Oh, yeah, all this money. I guess I should go do some research with it, shouldn’t I? Ooh, look, a shiny thing…!”

Anyway, he does the only thing you could do in this situation, which is to fabricate a New Guinea tribe and attribute a lot of interesting social customs to it. For the tribe’s name he comes up with Shelmikedmu, based on his three children, Shelley, Mickey and Edmund.

How could he name a tribe after his own kids and not have anyone notice the connection and thus realize his work is a sham? Easy. They are all the world’s stupidest people.

One person doubts him, though. This is Ruth Allen, a rival professor played by Lily Tomlin, who possesses in her left buttock more class and talent than the rest of this movie combined. (The same goes for David Ogden Stiers, of whom Disney must have incriminating photos, perhaps involving livestock, in order for him to appear in this film. It also goes for Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who plays Krippendorf’s mother-in-law and who subsequently appeared in Norm Macdonald’s “Screwed,” which makes me wonder if maybe she actually died several years ago and is merely being propped up in strategic locations, “Weekend at Bernie’s”-style.)

Anyway, the movie tries to pawn Prof. Allen off as a bad guy simply because she doubts our hero — who is lying, you’ll recall, which makes doubting him a fairly reasonable thing to do. But live-action Disney films deal in simplistic, moronic terms. The main character is always a hero, and everything he does is right. By process of elimination, anyone who opposes the main character is a bad guy. If Disney made a film about Adolf Hitler, 1) it would be a musical, and 2) you’d be expected to believe the Allies were mean for picking on cute li’l Hitly (voice of Nathan Lane).

Krippendorf not only lies to his colleagues, but involves his children in it. Sullen Teen wants nothing to do with his scheme, but Brilliant Boy and Adorable 5-Year-Old are both more than happy to help Dad perpetrate fraud and embezzlement. They build a New Guinea Shelmikedmu set in the backyard and create video footage of the non-existent tribe, including a circumcision ritual. (The leader of the tribe — impersonated by James himself — wears a penis sheath, too. This means that in virtually every scene of the movie, there is a phallic symbol or reference of some kind. Gay porn doesn’t refer to penises as much as “Krippendorf’s Tribe” does.)

In the end, Krippendorf’s massive web of lies and deceit brings the family together, as even Sullen Teen pitches in to aid Dad in selling his soul to Lucifer and setting a fine example for the kids. Not to spoil anything, but he gets away with it all. There is never any comeuppance; he never has to admit it was all a fake. In fact, he gets a new girlfriend out of the deal, though the thrill of that victory is no doubt lessened somewhat by it being Jenna Elfman. The message to our youth? Lying is fine, as long as you can get away with it. Also, penises are funny. Hooray!

F (1 hr., 34 min.; PG-13, a lot of crude humor, some profanity, some innuendo.)