VOD film review: Addams Family Values (1993)
Mark Harrison | On 30, Oct 2020
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd, Joan Cusack, Christina Ricci, Jimmy Workman
There are few other family comedies I can think of, in this decade or any other, that go for laughs harder than 1993’s Addams Family Values. Where the first film has the gift of perfect casting, it’s a meandering, nostalgic revival whose success set the stage for films like Casper and The Flintstones. Much like Batman Returns after 1989’s Batman, the sequel goes hell for leather after the creepy, spooky and – yes – the altogether-ooky.
Picking up where the first film left off, this starts with the Addams welcoming a ghastly baby boy named Pubert, much to the delight of Morticia (Anjelica Huston) and Gomez (Raul Julia). Older siblings Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) are less thrilled with this development, and the family searches for a nanny to stave off the children’s attempts at infanticide.
Enter Debbie Jellinsky (Joan Cusack), an amoral blonde bombshell who plays the part of governess a little too well. Unbeknownst to the Addams, Debbie is fresh off a starring role on America’s Most Disgusting Unsolved Crimes and her plot to send the older kids off to an expensive summer camp and seduce Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) is just her latest scheme.
The title of this one comes from an infamous speech given by President George HW Bush. Ahead of his defeat in the 1992 US presidential election, Bush Sr put heteronormative “family values” front and centre in his campaign and pledged to help Americans be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons”. It was an odd tactic to slag off the most popular sitcom in America at that time, but the Republicans’ euphemistic battle for “normality” also gives the perfect lay-up for this sequel.
For one thing, this matches the gag rate of peak Simpsons, right at the point where peak Simpsons was happening every week on TV. Writer Paul Rudnick’s script is so densely packed with jokes – “He has my father’s eyes.” “Gomez, take those out of his mouth.” – that you’re never more than a moment or two from the next big laugh. With a stronger story than its predecessor, the sequel is a far better showcase for its amazing cast too.
Though Workman’s Pugsley remains the most underserved member of the family and Carol Kane doesn’t get much to do as Grandmamma Addams, the returning cast are all superb again. Julia perfects his Gomez and Huston vamps it up spectacularly (note how in all her scenes, she’s lit with noir lighting across her eyes, irrespective of how anyone else in the frame is lit) and Ricci, a breakout star in the first film, gets much more to do here as the figurehead of the film’s assault on coddled conservatism. The summer camp subplot is rightly one of the most beloved aspects of this film, but the movie’s great from top to bottom.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Cusack breezes in and gives a career-best performance. If the film has to be as obsessed with the family’s wealth as the first one was, at least here it’s backed by an all-timer of a villainous performance, pitting Debbie’s more shark-like capitalist values against a functionally dysfunctional family, and specifically against Lloyd’s comically devoted Fester.
In any ensemble other than this, Cusack’s hilarious turn would leave everyone else in the dust, but she plays off against everyone magnificently too. Highlights include Huston’s begrudging respect for her successful sexual domination of Fester and the hilarious evolution of Julia’s delivery of the word “Debbie” from gregarious glee to utter dread (“YOU ARE MISTER DEBBIE”) over the course of the film.
While the topical title was already slightly outdated by the time the film reached cinemas in November 1993 (President Bill Clinton had been in office for almost a year) there are also a couple of too-topical references to Amy Fisher and Michael Jackson that date it. They don’t stick out as tasteless in a film this macabre, but they’re just not as funny as the various other horrible things that are going on. Otherwise, this holds up incredibly well.
Typically, it didn’t do as well at the box office as the first one, but it was Julia’s tragic death in 1994 that decisively ruled out any further sequels. In 1998, there was a direct-to-video reboot called Addams Family Reunion, starring Tim Curry and Daryl Hannah as Gomez and Morticia, which served as the prelude to a Saban TV series called The New Addams Family, and MGM rebooted the property as an animated film with Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron leading the voice cast.
“A lot more like The Simpsons”, Addams Family Values is the rare studio comedy that feels well and truly unhinged, using all the creative freedom afforded by the surprise success of the first film to let its freak flag fly. There’s so much to love here, whether it’s Fester’s shy advances towards his would-be black widow, Gomez and Morticia’s legendary ongoing horniness, or Wednesday’s defiant re-evaluation of Thanksgiving and all it stands for. This is a rare and wonderful thing, admirably defending its right to the pursuit of mirth, merriment, and manslaughter.