"Meet the Parents" is often funny and occasionally hilarious. I laughed
a lot at the story of a young man's nightmarish weekend with his
potential in-laws, but not as much as the people around me. Part comedy
of manners, part slapstick farce, the film does everything it sets out
to do, yet I still felt vaguely unsatisfied. Finally, I realized what
was troubling me.
I've seen this type of farce done better on "Frasier." Remember the
episode where the Crane family tried to help Daphne rid herself of an
old flame, only to get caught in an ever-increasing spiral of lies? Or
the one where Niles and Frasier vied for the sole open slot at an upper
crust men's club? How about the one where Niles mistakenly thought his
wife was having an affair with her fencing instructor and ended up in a
duel with the man, while his brother and a maid haplessly tried to
conquer a multi-language barrier? Or the one set at the ski lodge, where
five characters spent a sexually fevered night slipping from one room to
another, repeatedly ending up with the wrong person?
Each of those episodes featured tighter, more inventive plots and deeper
character development than "Meet the Parents." The comedy is a spirited,
relatively satisfying affair, but with names like Robert De Niro and Ben
Stiller attached to the project, I expect more.
Stiller plays a Chicago nurse named Greg Focker (and yes, the script
milks his last name to the hilt). Greg is on the verge of proposing
marriage to schoolteacher Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) when she announces her
sister's engagement to a man who took the old-fashioned approach, going
to the father to secure his approval before popping the question.
Not to be outdone, Greg decides to accompany Pam to the wedding so that
he, too, can ask for his beloved's hand. He meets Pam's charming mother,
Dina (Blythe Danner) and her imposing father, Jack (De Niro) at their
sprawling home. Greg soon learns two things about Jack. First, he is
fiercely protective of Pam. Second, while introduced as a retired
florist, Jack is actually an ex-C.I.A. operative, with all the tools of
the agency at his disposal.
So begins the worst weekend of Greg's life, as he desperately tries to
curry favor from a father who peers at him like a shepherd eyeing a
coyote. The harder Greg tries, the more mistakes he makes, with Jack's
elaborate security cameras catching every screw-up. Making matters even
worse is the arrival of Pam's ex-boyfriend Kevin (Owen Wilson), a
too-perfect-for-words gentleman who took up carpentry because he
considers Jesus an excellent role model. Intimidated beyond belief, Greg
finds himself the center of an escalating series of misadventures,
beginning with the accidental destruction of a family urn and building
to riotous extremes.
"Meet the Parents" has all the elements for a memorable farce and
succeeds more often than not. Ben Stiller displays ace comic timing
portraying a schnook floundering in the deep end of the societal pool.
As the menacing straight man, Robert De Niro makes a great foil, looking
far more comfortable here than he did in "Analyze This." Don't expect
any surprises from either actor, though – both are playing variations of
their standard personas. The only revelation comes from Owen Wilson
("Shanghai Noon"), who reinvents himself as a being of otherworldly
nobility. Wilson is a true original, becoming more impressive with each
Pity the women in the production, who are given little to work with.
Blythe Danner does what she can with a sorely underwritten part, giving
Dina a wry sparkle that shades her character in ways the script doesn't
even hint at. As Pam, Teri Polo is simply there. There are no sparks
between her and Stiller as she plays a girlfriend from the generic rack.
The flatness of the female characters is but one flaw in a screenplay
that would have been well served by a rewrite or two. After a fairly
taut beginning, "Meet the Parents" grows awfully sloppy in the middle,
lobbing gags around with little style or grace. Director Jay Roach
handles the material clumsily, focusing on large set pieces at the
expense of smooth pacing or character development.
The best farces or comedies of manners flow like a mountain stream, with
finely etched personalities shaping the direction and speed of the
humor. "Meet the Parents" is more like a drainage ditch, with jokes
overlapping as the story gushes to a fitful conclusion. The film is
undeniably funny, but with some finesse, it could have been so much
better. Note to Jay Roach and company: Before you make your next movie,
think things through, construct fully rounded characters and, for Pete's
sake, watch a few episodes of "Frasier."
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott