FILM / NEW RELEASES: Unnatural relations: Adam Mars-Jones on the second big-screen outing for the Addams Family; plus round-up

Click to follow
There are only a few things about Addams Family Values (15) as good as its title, but they're enough. Sequels may or may not be the true post-modernist form, but they can certainly be lazy affairs, and to put effort into the title, rather than saving all ingenuity for the poster campaign (Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Crypt. . .) earns points.

The new film repeats some elements of the first (Barry Sonnenfeld directed both): the television theme music - jaunty-sinister harpsichord, finger-clicks used for the opening titles and, in a baffling attempt to lend street appeal to characters who were conceived in the 1930s, a rap track over the closing credits.

Charles Addams' cartoons, although they had their own kind of sophistication, worked towards a single moment of reversal, when his wierdos trumped the normals or paradoxically conformed to them. The television version in the 1960s diluted the otherness of the Addamses and made Gomez and Morticia into idiots so as to be able to sustain some sort of joke in a different format: his behaviour was at least partly upper-class twit, while hers was partly daffy housewife.

The great merit of the films is that they give the principals dignity and even passion. They are monogamous and devoted in their perversions. Raul Julia fits the part of Gomez from his patent leather hair to the tips of his co-respondent shoes, and though Anjelica Huston's Morticia is only a Saturday job for a great but not easily-cast actress, it isn't a shameful one. The lazy voluptuousness of her line readings is a reliable pleasure, and in the new film she has earned the bonus of a Gothic follow-spot, an oval of personal moonlight that irradiates her face no matter where she happens to be in the frame. Her high point in the new film involves her reading The Cat in the Hat with a sorrowing intonation to her baby son, normally a tiny replica of Gomez, who has been briefly possessed by a benign spirit and has become pink- faced, gurgling and curly-haired.

The plot of Addams Family Values, like the plot of the first film, revolves around Gomez's brother Fester (Christopher Lloyd). A family created for a series of cartoons is hardly likely to be a dynamic entity, and in the first film the plot was weirdly circular: someone recruited to impersonate the long-lost Fester realised he was the real Fester after all. The sequel works an inversion on this - Fester is lured away from home by a homicidal gold-digger (Joan Cusack), who marries him and forbids him to see his kin.

Fester is the aboriginal Addams in the cartoons, a pure pariah ghoul. In the films he is given a naivety with overtones of pathos, a childlike quality that is quite new. Christopher Lloyd ably suggests the unspeakable body hidden by the coats that button up to the neck, and he has a good trick of dropping his head down between his shoulder- blades at moments of crisis, as if he had tortoise chromosomes, but his bruised eyes convey a softer message. His bedtime book is Strange Men and the Women Who Avoid Them, and it isn't giving him pleasant dreams.

The sharpest moment of pathos comes when he thrusts breadsticks up his nose in a walrus impersonation to impress the scheming Debbie in a fancy restaurant. The slapstick element, as in most of the film, isn't particularly effective or well contrived. What is sad and funny is the stricken expression in Fester's eyes, his fear that he won't be able to keep up this man-of-the- world performance for very much longer, and she's bound to turn against him when he stops being so inventively amusing.

The real find of the first film was Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams. She wasn't exactly a newcomer, having played one of Cher's daughters in Mermaid, but she was close enough to it to bring no associations with her. She looked like a childhood photograph of a Victorian murderess come to life, and there was something genuinely disturbing about her character's amorality. Jimmy Workman as her bother Pugsley seemed crushingly normal by contrast, simply a lout; he could hardly even rise to maladjustment. Paul Rudnick, who wrote the screenplay for the new film (and had a certain amount of script input on its predecessor) has sensibly gone out of his way to showcase Wednesday. His first idea, though, of having her and Pugsley resent the new arrival, is disappointing. Sibling rivalry is somehow unworthy of Wednesday - it's too straight. It also highlights the problem that the Addams family turns normal values on their heads and yet subscribes to the basics (love, togetherness) in a heavy disguise. Why should parents who suspend a knife mobile above the crib, in a nursery whose walls are decorated with a vulture motif, be conventionally solicitous, in however a muted way, about the well-being of the new arrival?

The summer camp where the children are sent shows Wednesday off much more successfully. It is also where the tenuous political element in the film shows up. The camp counsellors like the kids to be bubbly and Aryan and have difficulty in remembering a name like Mordecai, let alone one like Jamal. The Addams Family was hardly conceived as an attack on Wasps (the New Yorker an unlikely place for such a thing) and the characters retain a sense of family that is essentially patrician, but this works well enough. If it seems odd that Wednesday, cast as Pocahontas in the Thanksgiving pageant, delivers a politically correct speech about exploitation of aboriginal peoples before burning the place down, it gives some comfort to reflect that she would have burnt the place down anyway. The Addamses embody Satanalia rather than progress.

The screenwriter invents a punishment block for the camp known as the Harmony Hut, where there are posters of cute animals everywhere, and The Little Mermaid is never off the video. (It's rather a mean touch, or unfortunate timing, that one of the children being disciplined should give a little scream on seeing a poster of Michael Jackson.) When Wednesday has been indoctrinated with harmony over many hours, Christina Ricci cranks up a smile that is a small masterpiece of comic acting. Not only do we believe that this child has never smiled before, but we can't miss the pain the gesture costs her.

Like perhaps half the American films we see, Addams Family Values can't quite decide whether to target adults or children, not daring to forfeit either market. So we are allowed for a few minutes to think that Wednesday goes in for a little human sacrifice and scalping, in her interpretation of the role of Pocahontas, before being reassured. The film could profitably be a little more savage; but it can be recommended to those who want an antidote to the Christmas spirit, and have seen the first Gremlins so many times they know it by heart.

(Photograph omitted)