Ever since his wife died two years ago during an expedition they made to New Guinea, anthropologist James Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss) has been an emotional disaster. His teenage daughter Shelly (Natasha Lyonne) has had to keep the family in one piece. The strain of looking after her younger brothers, precocious twelve-year-old Mickey (Gregory Smith) and taciturn seven-year-old Edmund (Carl Michael Lindner), has driven a wedge between her and her father.
But that's just the beginning of Krippendorf's troubles. He's been goofing off and surviving on the grant money that funded the expedition. Now his karmic debts are coming due: Both his university and the foundation that gave him the grant are eagerly awaiting the first of his series of lectures on a tribe he was supposed to have discovered. But there is nothing to lecture about or from -- no tribe, no coherent notes. Krippendorf doesn't even have much of a background in anthropology, to judge by his complete befuddlement. (The film hints that his wife was the brains of the outfit.)
Forced to face a packed lecture hall with only a few hours' notice, Krippendorf wings it, recasting his own lifestyle of the past two years as the culture of an undiscovered primitive tribe. Quickly jumbling together his kids' names into one word, he starts regaling the crowd with tales of the Shelmikedmu, a tribe in which families are composed of children and a single, male parent.
He makes it through the first lecture but then discovers -- like he wouldn't have thought of it already -- that he is expected to present film documentation in future appearances. Luckily for Krippendorf, Mickey is something of a genius. The professor and kids build a hut in the back yard of their suburban house, disguise themselves in "tribal" makeup, and shoot films of Shelmikedmu rituals, which they later intercut with genuine footage from the expedition.
The scam might be controllable if the rest of the town would just leave the Krippendorfs to themselves. But the situation is complicated by Veronica (Jenna Elfman), an aggressive colleague who promotes the professor into a national figure by giving him his own show on Primal Time, an all-anthropology cable network. And a jealous faculty member (Lily Tomlin) has already taken off for New Guinea in an effort to find proof that Krippendorf is a fraud.
Director Todd Holland, best known for his work on TV's The Larry Sanders Show, helmed this formulaic but quite funny comedy. What's amazing is how Holland and his cast have managed to avoid lapses that could have vexed the material. This is, after all, a comedy about a bunch of white people who get up in blackface and bogus tribal costumes and leap around shouting (in effect) "Ooga booga!" Sure, the Shelmikedmu are supposed to be from New Guinea, not Africa, but they're still black. (And many of the actors portraying New Guinea natives are black.) It would have been easy for Krippendorf's Tribe to tip over into bad taste, if not outright racism.
But as was the case with George of the Jungle, the filmmakers have been careful to make sure the jokes are aimed at pompous white people. The movie is drenched in a kind of good-natured silliness that precludes taking offense.
Dreyfuss is in top form, and he's well matched by Elfman, whose goofy appeal manages to make a potentially abrasive character thoroughly likable. Neither Tomlin nor veterans Elaine Stritch and Tom Poston, who appear in supporting roles, get to do much of interest, but the leads and the three child actors compensate for this waste of valuable resources. Krippendorf's Tribe is not likely to cross anyone's mind come Oscar time next year, but it more than meets the modest demands of its niche.
Directed by Todd Holland. Written by Charlie Peters, from the book by Frank Parkin. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Jenna Elfman, and Lily Tomlin.