Remakes aren’t a trend, they’re a genre as much as the thriller or the horror movie in Hollywood. Films have been remade since the start of the medium: four versions of A Star is Born, four versions of Little Women, and nearly as many attempts at The Great Gatsby (the only one that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda lived to see is lost forever). Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Cecil B. DeMille, Raoul Walsh, and many other famous Classic Hollywood directors remade their own films, whether they were updating them for sound or not. Walsh’s High Sierra was remade as a Western in 1948 called Colorado Territory; Ford often reached back and revised older work (3 Bad Men and 3 Godfathers; Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright); Hawks devoted much of his late career to “spiritual sequels” and “paraphrased remakes” like El Dorado, Man’s Favorite Sport?, and Rio Lobo; and Hitchcock and DeMille waited just 25 years to update their Ten Commandments and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
At some point, “remake” became a dirty word—too many moviegoers burned by Old Hollywood hagiography and “Hitchcockian” Hitchcock remakes in the 1970s and 1980s. Remakes are not cynical cash-grabs per se, yet they’re almost always treated as such. When Howard Hawks took The Front Page and remade it with a girl and a guy and sped up the dialogue, he made a classic with His Girl Friday. The differences between the two are insignificant on paper, so close that it’d be called a cynical cash grab today. But it’s no different than re-staging a play, or writing a high school comedy and retrofitting Shakespeare references to make it sell. For whatever reason, brats interpreting Shakespeare are the only acceptable remakes in American cinema.
There are remakes every decade, but what changes are the movies that get remade. At the start of the millennium, there were a lot of Y2K updates to action and heist classics, especially involving cars: Gone in 60 Seconds, The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, Get Carter. Half of those are more renowned than their originals. What about The In-Laws, released the same weekend as The Italian Job? Not even close. Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks star in this 21st-century update to the 1979 Alan Arkin/Peter Falk sleeper hit, a remake that wasn’t supposed to be known as a remake.
Brooks said, “The only reason I did that movie was because it wasn’t going to be called The In-Laws. We shot under the name The Wedding Party and they had one test screening where everyone loved it so they decided to use the old name instead.” The movie tanked critically and commercially, mitigating what would’ve been a banner year for Brooks otherwise (Finding Nemo, likely the most successful movie he’s ever been a part of, came out just a few weeks later). And he was still pissed in 2005: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, his last directorial effort to date, opens with Penny Marshall asking him why he “did that awful remake of The In-Laws.”
There isn’t anything new in The In-Laws ’03. Brooks and Douglas are a good duo, not as good as Arkin and Falk, but Brooks doesn’t make or star in many movies—whatever he thinks about it, The In-Laws is a good performance. The movie as a whole just doesn’t bring anything new to the 1979 original, which is fine—it was a great movie, an evergreen comedy whose premise won’t have to be updated as long as people continue getting married.
But what about political remakes? Arthouse and foreign remakes? Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate was rightfully dismissed in 2004, while Jay Roach et al. made a fortune remaking the 1992 American independent film Meet the Parents in 2000, and Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise hit a speed bump with the ever-underrated Vanilla Sky in 2001, a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Obre Los Ojos. But 1997 is a lot closer to 2001 than 1974 is to 2002, the year that Guy Ritchie and Madonna remade Lina Wertmüller’s class struggle classic Swept Away. This remake is even more faithful to the original than The In-Laws: except for the gag-inducing Mazzy Star montage near the end, Swept Away proceeds just as it did in 1974: Madonna plays an insane rich bitch on a boat, insults her friends and family and especially the proletarian crew, ends up getting lost and stranded with the one worker she hates the most, and when they find a desert island, the power dynamics shift, and she becomes his property, someone he can boss around and mistreat.
Swept Away is one of the great films about men and women and sex and capitalism, how industrial society forces all of us to repress animal urges constantly, creating necessary pressure valves that often end in violence and death. Both films are far superior to the leaden Triangle of Sadness, with so much more to say with so much less material. Madonna’s a complete asshole to this guy and her meek, ineffectual husband, but when the stinking prole forces himself on her, she likes it. In the original, she begs Giancarlo Giannini to “sodomize me,” a detail left out of the Y2K update. Even if Wertmüller enjoyed brief intelligentsia popularity in America in the late-1970s and early-1980s, she wasn’t a household name in 2002. Few people going to see the new Guy Ritchie and Madonna movie had any context for her rants about how awesome capitalism is, or how she could possibly enjoyed being taken by force on a deserted island by a big, strong, hairy man.
And it got trashed because Ritchie and Madonna were married at the time, and the press and the public will never allow a star to have it all, especially not someone this much of an asshole. Film critics hate “dumb comedies,” but they hate women behaving badly even more.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith