In tone and overall mood, Bryan Spicer’s For Richer or Poorer (1997) comes closest to hitting that delightfully wacky trademark in 1930s screwball comedy; bringing together some wonderfully inept characters caught in the most unlikely, yet fun-loving of circumstances. There's nothing terribly new or exciting in this 'fish out of water' scenario, and yet Spicer manages to make the most out of Jana Howington and Steve Lukanic's clever screenplay.
The pairing of Kirstie Alley and Tim Allen as Brad and Caroline Sexton – feuding marries on the cusp of a nasty divorce - is perfect casting. Far from a conventional comedy about the woes in a marriage gone bad the screenplay goes one step further, introducing the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ wrinkle that transforms what would otherwise be a generic cinematic offering into an inspired one.
The film opens on the eve of Brad and Caroline’s moneyed 10 year anniversary celebration at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Brad sees the event as an opportunity to schmooze potential investors, including Judge Joan Northcutt (June Claman) for financial contributions on his latest real estate development misfire – The Holy Land; an absurd Disney-esque prototype for the religiously bankrupt. Caroline is Brad’s partner in crime, making herself the belle of the ball with the jet set while taking time to mingle with her own flock of ruthlessly cold-hearted fair-weather friends. On the surface, the couple has everything – wealth, power and a genuine love for each other. One problem; it’s all a lie.
In fact, Brad’s about to discover just how badly he’s misjudged his marriage and his lifestyle. Returning to their fashionable penthouse, Caroline asks for a divorce. Brad’s accountant, Bob Lachman (Wayne Knight) reveals to him that he has so cooked the company’s books that Brad is virtually bankrupt and worse – owes $5 million dollars to the IRS in back taxes. Hunted by federal agents, Derek Lester (Larry Miller) and Frank Hall (Miguel Nunez Jr.), Brad and Caroline hijack a New York City cab and hide out from the law in the most unlikely of enclaves; an Amish community.
Masquerading as distant cousins Emma and Jacob Yoder, the Sextons are mistakenly received with open arms by Samuel (Jay O. Sanders) and his wife, Levinia (Megan Cavanagh). Regrettably, the transition from pampered penthouse to bucolic backwater is hardly smooth or satisfying.
In one of the film's most hilarious sequences, Samuel introduces Brad to Big John – an enormous Belgian workhorse that makes a mockery of Brad’s supposed prowess with the planting. Brad is instead dragged for several miles – arriving hours late to the dinner table a muddy mess, only to be informed that Caroline/Emma has made his favorite dish; brain, kidney and lung casserole. Mmmm…how yummy is that?
Brad contacts his attorney, Phil Kleinman (Michael Lerner), who informs him that it will take at least three weeks to straighten out the financial mess with the IRS. Hence, the Sextons are stuck playing the amiable fools. Eventually, Brad and Caroline do find their niche among the locals; they even come to realize why they fell in love in the first place.
For Richer or Poorer is the sort of feel good comedy Hollywood really doesn't make anymore. Despite its veneer of sophistication and ultra high end production values, the story is just as simple as life on a farm. What is most becoming about the Howington/Lukanic screenplay is how it discovers its humor in the everyday, rather than creating absurd or improbable situations to get its laughs. The Amish are represented as quaint, if slightly out of touch with reality at the start of the film. However, as the narrative wears on, the message becomes quite clear: the outside world can learn a lot from this cloistered community. In the end, the screenplay treats all its characters with respect and dignity, its tongue-in-cheek approach to life in general immensely refreshing.
Kirstie Alley and Tim Allen have great good fun as the feuding Sextons; their spiteful venom and rivalry eliciting some hearty laughs. But its their maturing as a couple, their gradual coming together in the latter half of the film that truly warms our hearts. Allen, as we all remember, became a household name as everyone's favorite power-tool challenged handyman on TV's Home Improvement, while Kirstie Alley first made a splash as the fiery Virgilia Hazard in TV's North and South - then equally fiery/if suddenly klutzy bar maid on TV's Cheers. It's nice to see that their roles in For Richer Or Poorer don't rely on our fondness for either of these past tenures to sell the movie. Each actor brings something fresh and new to their roles.
Universal Home Video's DVD is impressive, but I'd like to see the studio revisit this title in 1080p on Blu-ray soon. Flesh tones are very natural. Contrast levels are just a tad weaker than expected. There are no age related or digital artifacts to speak of. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and can be quite aggressive at times. The only extra feature is a theatrical trailer – a shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)