Meet the Parents

meet-the-parents-movie-clip-screenshot-milking-a-cat_largeSwimming into the deep end of his fifties now, Robert De Niro has become, for want of a better term, the ultimate actor. You want the ultimate monster, like Satan, Frankenstein, or Al Capone? See if you can get De Niro. You need the ultimate gangster, either scary (GoodFellas) or funny (Analyze This)? Try to get De Niro. The actor’s recent hunger to lighten up after decades of heavy-duty roles has been a boon for comedy directors, who now can actually get De Niro. It makes perfect sense, then, that in Meet the Parents, De Niro should embody the ultimate funny/scary father-in-law.

Meet the Parents, directed speedily enough by Jay Roach (the Austin Powers films), owes about 55 percent of its charm to De Niro, who can be hilarious just sitting there — glaring at some poor sap over his spectacles, his mouth drawn down into that unique De Niro scowl that suggests he’s just drunk sour milk and blames you for it. The other 45 percent belongs to Ben Stiller, as the poor sap in question — the unfortunately named Greg Focker, madly in love with schoolteacher Pam (Teri Polo) and eager to pop the question. Problem is, Greg hasn’t yet met Pam’s parents — her gentle mom Dina (Blythe Danner) and much less gentle dad Jack (De Niro).

Jack, an anal-retentive family man (“I’ll meet you out front in 12 to 15 minutes”) who’s more than meets the eye, sizes up poor Greg in a heartbeat when the young couple arrive at the parents’ well-groomed New York home for a weekend. Greg, who’s a male nurse and plans to stay one despite the universal shit he takes for it, has everything going against him, particularly his insecurity. No matter how hard he tries to impress Jack, it either isn’t enough or it’s the polar opposite of what Jack looks for in a son-in-law.

In the fine Murphy’s Law tradition of comic inevitability (whatever can go wrong will, and Greg will make things go wrong spectacularly), Greg manages to track mud all over what little credibility he has. Stepping lightly over the jokes: Greg’s suitcase gets lost, and an Austin Powers-style raunchy gag comes of that; Greg takes a lie-detector test and fails with flying colors; and anytime something is established as precious to the hard-boiled but sentimental Jack, whether his mother’s ashes or his beloved cat Jinx, rest assured Greg will find a way to befoul it. One would think that after the first couple of disasters, Greg would be frightened into immobility, but that wouldn’t be much of a comedy.

Meet the Parents may well play as a horror movie for guys who, like Greg, haven’t yet encountered their potential father-in-law. As in There’s Something About Mary, Ben Stiller is an Everyschmuck — a regular guy who gets deeper into chaos the harder he tries to just get along. Stiller brings his edgy, repressed hostility (which gets unrepressed in two beautifully rhythmed rants near the end) to the game, parrying nervously but smoothly with the rock-like De Niro, whose every syllable directed at Greg drips with poorly-hidden contempt. The fun is when the two antagonists try to maintain cordial masks, so the actors get to footnote every pleasant exchange with psychological sword-clanging worthy of Kurosawa.

The movie is very broad and sitcom-esque. For the kids, there’s a sewage-as-lawn-sprinkler gag, as well as a Rube Goldberg mishap that begins on a roof and ends with a lovingly carved altar destroyed. (The altar comes courtesy of Pam’s ex-fiancee, a millionaire stock whiz and carpentry hobbyist played by Owen Wilson with such easy good cheer that I was disappointed not to see more of him.) The film is predictable down to its bones, but Jay Roach has talked about that comic-inevitability thing in interviews — the mishap you see coming a mile away, and settle back happily waiting for it to go down. Meet the Parents gives you exactly what you expect from a comedy with Ben Stiller as a petrified suitor and Robert De Niro as his petrifying nemesis; that’s nothing to sneeze at — or to spray sewage at.

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