Krippendorf’s Tribe is a formula comedy. Done poorly, formulaic comedies might seem to signify the downfall of American cinema. However, every now and then one emerges, like Krippendorf’s Tribe, that actually works.
Professor James Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss), the renowned anthropologist, is in trouble. His university gave him a hefty grant to discover a lost tribe in New Guinea. However, he found…nothing. His wife has recently died, and he has spent the remainder of the grant money in raising his three kids: Shelly (Natasha Lyonne), Mickey (Gregory Smith) and Edmund (Carl Michael Lidner).
Tonight, he is expected to lecture on his newfound tribe. Rather than break the news (and face the consequences of misusing his funds), he invents a tribe: the Shelmikedmu (named after his kids). However, one lie begets another as he is not only required to deliver filmed proof of the Shelmikedmu, but his research becomes a popular phenomenon.
Soon, Professor Krippendorf is caught up in an elaborate ruse in which he films mockumentary footage starring his children as the Shelmikedmu tribal members. His efforts are hampered by the boasts of an over-eager colleague, Veronica Micelli (Jenna Elfman), and the intense scrutiny of a rival anthropologist, Ruth Allen (Lily Tomlin).
Krippendorf’s Tribe does seem to require a little suspension of disbelief. No one seems to question the way his field documentaries seem to be shot with multiple cameras, or that his newly discovered tribesmen have startlingly blue eyes. Luckily, as the film builds momentum, that suspension of disbelief is easy to come by.
Though there’s some mild humor in the Krippendorf family trying to pass themselves off as a lost tribe, the real humor of the film is in how James gets trapped in his ever increasing snowball of lies. The double meanings to many of the Shelmikedmu appearances are enjoyable, and the comic timing required for some of the film’s latter scenes is superb.
Richard Dreyfuss is terrific as the hapless professor who soon loses control of his own imaginary tribe. Jenna Elfman’s position as a romantic lead seems a bit forced at times, but she plays the part with extreme affability. Even the kids, who in films like this tend to be a bit on the precocious side, are endearing and humorous.
Yes, the film does veer occasionally into some rather lowbrow humor, but it has the best excuse of all: it’s funny. It may not go down as an all-time classic, but it certainly delivers what you expect from a comedy: plenty of laughs.