Meet the Parents

Actor Ben Stiller (son of husband-and-wife comedy duo Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller) has found box office success playing the sweet, yet highly neurotic, social misfit.

His characters are generally hampered by not being as hip or mentally sharp (“Reality Bites,” “Mystery Men”) or as attractive as the other characters (“Something About Mary”).

And, while he presents a facade of civilized humility, repressed anger usually seethes beneath the surface, ready to explode. (A comic convention also milked by Adam Sandler.)

In his latest film, Stiller again plays a variation of this signature misfit. In “Meet the Parents,” he is Greg Focker, a Jewish nurse madly in love with a W.A.S.P. schoolteacher, Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo). While on bended knee, ready to pop the question, Focker’s proposal is interrupted by a phone call from Pam’s newly engaged sister, Debbie (Nicole DeHuff).

Listening to the conversation, Focker learns that, if he wants to get off on the right foot, before proposing to Pam he should first get permission from her father, Jack (Robert De Niro).

A weekend at the Byrnes house seems the perfect opportunity to do this, or so Focker thinks. But, from the minute he gets out of the rental car, nothing goes right. Jack turns out to be not a former horticulturalist, as Pam said, but a CIA agent with a general dislike for would be sons-in-law.

During the course of the weekend, everything about Focker – his name, profession, intelligence, behavior and character – is called into question. In the end, one disaster builds upon another.

As this is a romantic comedy, however, things never get to a point beyond repair.

Those who go to see “Meet the Parents” expecting “Something About Mary” will come away with some disappointment. Although it has its moments of hilarity, it’s nowhere as ribald or irreverent as the farcical “Mary.”

No one gets his privates caught in a zipper or wrestles with a crazed dog. (Although the film does feature a pampered cat named Jinx.)

And, since the tone is more serious, the situation often seems more pitiful than funny. Toward the end, I felt like I was watching bullies beat up on an innocent guy.

Because of this, I didn’t enjoy the film as much as many others seemed to. Judging by the numbers, audiences do like the film. In its first week, it broke box office records for an October release, and in its second week, it did it again. Despite competition from three other new releases, it held onto its No. 1 spot.

The reason for the film’s popularity has much to do with its dynamic cast, particularly Stiller and De Niro. Stiller has an amazing gift for comedy, but he’s equally adept at drama. He played against type in “Permanent Midnight,” flexing his acting muscles as a drug-addicted TV writer.

De Niro, who has been known more for his dramatic work, seems to be branching out more into comedy. The actor tinkered with comedy in the past, with “King of Comedy,” “Midnight Run,” “We’re No Angels” and “Wag the Dog,” but he’s never given himself completely over to the genre as he has in the past two years.

In addition to “Meet the Parents,” De Niro poked fun at himself in “Analyze This” and “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” Comedy seems to suit him just fine.

A veritable chameleon, De Niro can alter his personality and appearance to portray just about anyone. Compare his work in “Awakenings” with “Taxi Driver” or even “Raging Bull,” and you’ll see what I mean.

While much of his earlier work gained critical acclaim, many lament the fact that in the past decade, De Niro hasn’t been selective enough in choosing his roles. “Meet the Parents” proves that given the right vehicle, this man is still one of the best in the business.

Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother) and Owen Wilson, starring, respectively, as Pam’s mother and fiance, also add substance to “Meet the Parents.”

Credit for the film’s success also should go to director Jay Roach, alumnus of the Austin Powers films; editor Jon Poll and writers Greg Glienna, Mary Ruth Clarke, James Herzfeld and John Hamburg.

Roach knows that a successful comedy depends on good performances and perfect timing. He keeps the camera moves simple, letting the professionals do the rest.

Poll keeps the story tight and the gags rolling. Glienna and Clarke came up with the idea, which for many men is probably not an unfamiliar one; and Herzfeld and Hamburg penned the screenplay.

Herzfeld, who wrote the cult classic “Tapeheads,” shows he can still create wacky situations and dialogue.

“Meet the Parents” carries many well-crafted scenes and gags, many of which you don’t see coming until they happen. If you have been aching for something a little more highbrow than “Ladies Man,” you’ll find it with “Meet the Parents.”

Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films, and covering the entertainment industry, for more than a decade. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and anime. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.

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