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‘The Addams Family’ (PG-13)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1991

Hollywood must have run out of comic book characters to blow up on the big screen, because now it's sending screenwriters into the vaults to exhume baby-boom-era TV shows. The first project the crypt/script raiders have emerged with is a big-bucks remake of "The Addams Family."

Naturally, it's much closer in spirit to the 1964-66 ABC sitcom than to the classic characters cartoonist Charles Addams drew for the New Yorker magazine from 1932 through 1988. Still, the resulting film, a laugh-in-the-dark funhouse ride that provides nearly two hours of slightly sinister sight gags and Gothic giggles, is creepy, kooky, even altogether ooky enough to satisfy any Addams addict.

A novelty like this is only as good as its gimmicks, and first-time director Barry Sonnenfeld loads them generously into a storyline that resembles two hastily stitched-together circa-'66 TV scripts. Addams patriarch Gomez (Raul Julia) is moping over the memory of his brother Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd), missing for 25 years, since the pair quarreled over the affections of the Siamese twins Flora and Fauna. Meanwhile, scheming cousin Tully, who owes beaucoup bucks to ruthless loan shark Abigail Craven and her son Gordon (a Fester lookalike, naturally), cooks up a scheme for Gordon to impersonate Fester and raid the Addams's ancestral vault, which is brimming with gold doubloons and grisly but priceless knickknacks.

Sonnenfeld, a director of photography for "Misery" and "Big," among others, brings his stylish visual sensibility to bear on the Addams's unwholesome family values, exploiting every slapstick possibility in their fantastic, phantasmic haunted house, from the roller-coaster descent into Gomez's booby-trapped vault (a spoof of the most spectacular scene in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera") to the crusty kitchen in which ancient Granny cooks up ever more nauseating noshes and ghoulashes for her brood. "Play with your food, darling," says mom Morticia (Anjelica Huston), as daughter Wednesday (Christina Ricci) is presented with a plateful of twitching purplish glop. Special-effects wizardry has resulted in a greatly expanded role for Thing, the Addams's severed-hand gofer, who used to be confined to black boxes on end tables. Thing (the disembodied handiwork of magician Christopher Hart) is now free to skitter about on all fives, and can even hitch a ride on the bumper of a passing car.

Huston gives porcelain-pale Morticia a sepulchral elegance and an eyebrow-arching, drop-deadpan delivery, whether pruning the roses or speaking a few words of French. Which, of course, drives Gomez to fits of lunatic Latin passion. The film's hilarious high point is a school play in which pallid Wednesday and pudgy Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), directed by bald and bug-eyed Uncle Fester, turn a snippet of Shakespeare into a glorious Grand Guignol gross-out. Amid all these endearing eccentrics, Dana Ivey's smothering mother Craven emerges as this movie's real monster.

Unfortunately, the affectionate care Sonnenfeld and company lavished on creating the Addams's insular world is marred by intrusive "product placements," in which brand names and logos are crassly forced in our faces. An otherwise very funny scene featuring Thing amounts to an extended ad for Federal Express, and the rap beats from Hammer's new album boom from passing cars in several scenes -- nothing will date this movie faster.

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