Meet the Parents
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg

Starring Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller


Meet the Parents

The good news about "Meet the Parents" is that it shows us Ben Stiller is really a grownup, and not the adolescent retard he played in "There's Something About Mary." The bad news is, he's not very good at being a grownup. He still has that deer-in-the-headlights stare, the stammer under tension, and the stiffness that's not quite up to handling the physical comedy he must do in his films.

"Meet the Parents" gives us Stiller as Greg Focker (né Gaylord, get it? -- Gay Focker, har, har), and more jokes are made of his name in the film than anyone past sixth grade should deserve. He's a nurse in Chicago -- more locker-room jokes -- about to become engaged to his girlfriend Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), a schoolteacher with a father from hell (Robert De Niro) and a mother from la-la land (Blythe Danner). The film takes us through the weekend he meets the folks at their place on Long Island.

De Niro, as dad Jack Byrnes, is not the retired floral designer Greg's been told, as he finds out when he brings a gift of a rare plant and Jack doesn't know what it is. In fact he's a retired CIA profiler, a talent he turns immediately on Greg, strapping him into his polygraph machine in the basement. Stiller, whose by-now-trademark reaction to tension in his film roles is to lie, manages to build his house of cards by covering up one lie with another, bigger one. Do we know the house will fall? Do we also know that Jack will turn out to be okay in the end? Do we know that before that happens Greg will lose the family's precious cat, break the urn with Jack's mother's ashes -- a good gag topped by a better one when the precious cat then then urinates on them -- flood the lawn on which Pam's sister is to be married under the huppa built out of one giant log by Pam's ex-boyfriend Kevin (Owen Wilson in a beautiful cameo of the perfect but clueless man) with a great deal of material from the overflowing septic tank, and then burn the huppa? We do, but much if not most of it still works.

In fact the film could well be a kind of remake of a Buster Keaton silent feature, only without the genius of Keaton. As I watched it, I thought about making it without dialogue, just using intertitles where necessary, and not very many of them. Without question it would work. So much of this film is built on classic silent comedy, with one physical joke or wordless take topping the previous one, that I wouldn't be surprised to find the writers actually took Keaton as their model. The problem is that director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers films) doesn't quite get his camera setups right for the jokes to pay off the way Keaton would have done them. He's usually got the camera too close to his characters, and uses too many shots to set up the gags before the payoffs come. By trying to make his characters into real people he gives away the comedy's power. Comedy for real human beings usually comes from relationships and dialogue, as it does in real life. Comedy for stick figures like these works when it's purely physical (Keaton or Chaplin, for example), or simply tells jokes (The Monty Python films). Trying to meld the two into one weakens both.

"Meet the Parents" isn't a bad film; it has some funny moments and more gags than it knows how to handle properly. It's good enough that we just wish it were better.    

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