Acting Like Savages
We get introduced to the unkempt professor as he is prostrate on the sofa with his three ruffians-children overrunning the house. There is Shelly, his typically irritable teenage daughter, (Natasha Lyonne); Mickey, an adolescent son just wanting more time with dad; and Edmund, much younger and obviously troubled because he rarely speaks. His son’s emotional manifestation is repeatedly shown to be an annoyance to Krippendorf.
As the professor is kicking his way through the debris-ridden home and yelling at the kids he answers a knock at the door to greet a tall, beaming woman named Monica, (Elfman). In the first of many stretches of logic we are led to believe that statuesque blonde women are enraptured with squat looking anthropologists. Monica is a former student and current professor who is intent on making Krippendorf’s discoveries world renown. She also informs that his first speech is to be delivered at the college that evening, which comes as a surprise to the educator. Apparently no members of his department thought enough to check on him until this very day.
That night while sweating out how he will explain that he burned through $100,000 without so much as a spear to show for it, his friend Gerald,(an embarrassed looking Steven Root) tells about another professor who will do jail time for fraud. Krippendorf addresses the packed lecture hall with his speech with the working title, “Just Winging it-101”. He cobbles together the names of his kids to explain how he discovered a tribe in New Guinea he calls the Shelmikedmu. As the audience is silently rapt he takes a plastic space shuttle from Edmund that the boy had once placed in the oven, and holding the wingless toy aloft explains that it is a unisex marital aid used by the tribe. Everyone looks in awe while no one in attendance asks how this primitive group managed to learn polymer chemical casting techniques.
The audience is excited with the exception of fellow anthropologist Ruth Allen, (Tomlin) who asks Krippendorf for photographic evidence of his discovery. James tells her and the crowd he is editing footage that will wow them, thus propelling him further down the road of professional prevarication. At home he decides to take some of the films he and his wife had shot in their research and splice in footage of him and the children in tribal regalia. They convert their backyard in a family bonding project, (apparently all the indigenous fauna of Guinea is available at the Home Depot Garden department) including James and the boys stealing chickens and pigs from area farms.
At home the kids begin many scenes of their romping about the yard in cartoonish costumes, and this brings about a peculiar occurrence. Their behavior leaves you with the impression that they are being offensive towards a non-existent people; somehow you get the feeling of a hate-crime being leveled against a fabricated demographic.
After snapping some photographs of the decorated children the petulant Shelly decides she’s had enough with her backsliding father and she bails from the project. The boys however take to the venture, and this is helpful as the Shelmikedmu are poised to become a national rage. Repeatedly we are served up with the disbelief that this country of ours—one that embraces such hollow icons as Ben & J.Lo, “Freddy vs. Jason”, monster truck rallies, and Paris Hilton—might be caught up in an anthropological frenzy. The closest this nation came to such cultural infatuation was in the ‘70’s when the artifacts of King Tut’s tomb toured our museums to large crowds. But much of that had to do with Steve Martin’s song.
As Krippendorf’s “research” becomes popular his need to perpetuate his faux discovery grows. Scenes in which he and his son are together at the editing machine in the garage are portrayed as warm moments, even as they are actively defrauding a University. Later a television producer comes sniffing around for footage and Monica takes an active part in the negotiations. This angers Krippendorf for two reasons. It will force him to widen his deceptive research results, but more idiotic than that, he is upset that Monica sounded as if she was taking credit for some of his work. You can understand his outrage towards someone who dared to steal research that he rightfully fabricated by himself.
His initial refusal for royalties gets turned around when a mortgage bill comes in the mail and he then agrees to sell exclusive video footage of his tribe to Henry Spivey. Spivey has tapped into the national zeitgeist and is set to launch a new cable offering, Primal Time, an all anthropology channel. Why not? The ratings should at least be better than The Oxygen Network. Not surprisingly this new outlet for his findings sends the unethical educator deeper into the ethical abyss.
While visiting his home one evening Monica gets drunk and James sees an opportunity. After revealing the truth of his research to her he cajoles the inebriated gal to don some of the native gear, and as they jump around like ravers hopped up on Red Bull & Absolute he slips behind a screen to start a video camera. With the tape running he records their antics and then his subsequent seduction of the drunken victim. Later that week, while shopping at an electronics store, Monica discovers the tape of their drunken romp was sold as a sweeps-week mating ritual special. (This comes about because she shopped at the only Best Buy in America that shows educational cable channels on their in-store television bank display and not football games.)
Meanwhile, Ruth Allen has taken it upon herself to expose Krippendorf as a liar. So certain is she that his tribe is a bogus discovery she decides to fly to New Guinea herself and…I guess discover his non-discovery…or un-discover his tribe, maybe? I’m not really clear. I just found it surprising that a university has enough petty cash sitting around for the whims of the teachers who want to fly off to temperate climes.
This attempt is stymied by Krippendorf with his newest device. He surprises the hordes with an appearance of an actual Shelmikedmu tribal chieftain—Krippendorf in costume. After an initial frenzy James and Monica have to attend a banquet with the chief as guest of honor. This leads to James and Monica alternately dashing backstage to swap in and out of the costume, and nobody seems to notice the change. This is implausible given that Elfman towers over Dreyfus and therefore the chief’s height fluxuates by six inches throughout the scenes.
Things are tidied up at the end when Ruth is about to discover the fraud when Krippendorf’s daughter changes her attitude, calls over to New Guinea, and bribes another tribe that they know to pose as the Shelmikedmu. Ruth is duped and Krippendorf is a hero, even though they are located in a previously discovered locale.
So this family picture gives us a hero with this list of insurrections: Professional graft, fabricating research, compelling his kids to perpetrate fraud, date rape, video taping the tryst, defrauding the network of money, and stealing livestock. Based on the happy ending I have to assume that Disney has shifted its stance on family values. Maybe their next project could be a cuddly animated feature based on the Unabomber’s Manifesto.


Brad Slager brings us a deep exploration into films that received a major studio release, with bankable star talent and a significant promotional campaign, and yet failed to receive the public’s attention. Brad trains his focus on those titles that have failed to register in the public conciousness–even for those who have seen them–and strives to find out what caused the problems, although he occasionally may digress into unrestrained flagellation. (For this we apologize.)

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Posted on April 21, 2004 in Features by

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