They’re creepy and they’re predictable? Mysterious and rather tame? When it was announced that The Addams Family would become a big-screen feature, I reacted like any card-carrying baby boomer with cherished memories of his trash-culture past: My heart did a little flip of anticipation. The Addams Family debuted on television in 1964 and ran for two years, and when I was a kid it certainly seemed hip. Beneath their wax-museum makeup and moldering trunk-in-the-back-of-the-attic wardrobes, this clan of domesticated ghoulies had a festive, party-down glee, and they were genuinely weird. (I sort of understood why Gomez liked Morticia to speak French, but why on earth did she play that twangy Japanese guitar?) For all that, the coolest thing about the show was undoubtedly the opening credits: the cross-wristed finger snaps, the tinkling harpsichord, the deadpan deathliness of it all. For a few seasons there, The Addams Family turned macabre tomfoolery into ’60s-sitcom chic.
But that was nearly 30 years ago. The makers of the new Addams Family claim that they’ve returned to the original Charles Addams cartoons for inspiration. I believe them, but the result of their labors is just the sitcom with better set design. Okay, so the casting is nifty. As Morticia, Anjelica Huston is a honey-voiced torture freak, a willowy S&M geisha with bedroom eyes. Raul Julia, as Gomez, seems to be having the time of his life, whether he’s smashing golf balls through his neighbor’s window or engaging his hapless lawyer (Dan Hedaya) in swashbuckling duels. As Fester, Gomez’s long-lost brother — we’re told early on that he’s an imposter trying to get at the Addams’ secret fortune —Christopher Lloyd, done up in makeup that makes Zippy the Pinhead look like Prince Charming, does some priceless mugging. Best of all is the scene-stealing Christina Ricci, who plays Wednesday with the adorable, saucer-eyed disengagement of a demon child from Neptune. Beneath her pigtails, Wednesday is every bit her mother’s daughter — it’s just that where Morticia likes receiving pain, Wednesday enjoys giving.
So with all of this going for it, why isn’t The Addams Family more fun? For openers, there’s almost no story. First-time director Barry Sonnenfeld pieces together a series of glorified comic-strip panels. More than that, it’s the same joke over and over again: Those Addamses, they sure are wacky and cold- blooded and macabre! The rotting Addams manse is a wonderful funhouse — it’s full of things that should be dead but aren’t — yet the humor, instead of escalating, becomes harmless and repetitive.
In the decades since The Addams Family first charmed us on TV, black comedy has gotten wilder, crazier, blacker. Just think of Beetlejuice and Gremlins, of Twin Peaks and Saturday Night Live, of blood-gushing horror comedies like The Evil Dead. The Addams Family keeps telling us what lovable weirdniks the Addamses are. But what it really needed to do was give the familiar characters more flesh, to turn them from one-joke icons into true, outrageous movie characters — kinky champions of nonconformity. It might have helped had the film included a few more representatives of the straight world. As it is, there’s almost nothing for the family to play off. We’re shut up in that mansion right along with them, and the kookiness grows fatally quaint. C+