Meet the Parents (United States, 2000)
What has happened to Robert De Niro's career? Once referred to as one of the top working American actors, De Niro has seen his talents wasted countless times in recent years as he has chosen one bad project after another. The list of titles reads like a litany of mediocrity: The Fan, Great Expectations, Flawless, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Men of Honor, and Meet the Parents. There have been a few entertaining efforts mixed in, like Ronin and Analyze This, but one has to go back to the mid-1990s and Casino to find the last time that De Niro truly lit up the screen.
Like Analyze This, Meet the Parents plays off De Niro's intimidating reputation as a psycho/gangster/all-around badass. Here, he portrays the living embodiment of every guy's nightmare: the girlfriend's father. The role certainly doesn't make undue demands of De Niro. By playing things straight, he milks the greatest comic potential out of an uneven screenplay. (Remember: the straight man doesn't get the laughs, but the jokes don't work without him.) In Analyze This, De Niro proved beyond any doubt that he can be as adept at comedy as at drama, and there's nothing in Meet the Parents to challenge that conclusion.
Unfortunately, the movie as a whole doesn't live up to its top-billed actor's performance. Meet the Parents is put together like a TV sit-com. Director Jay Roach, the man behind the camera for the two Austin Powers spoofs (as well as Mystery, Alaska), strings together a series of hit-and-miss lowbrow gags with little care for whether any of the connecting material is coherent, interesting, or enjoyable (in most cases, it's none of those three). When it's funny, Meet the Parents can be very funny; however, there are often long stretches of filler in between the laughs. How well the film works for each individual will depend on his or her tolerance for this sort of marginal approach.
Typecast Ben Stiller plays a meek guy who becomes the butt of the universe's latest cosmic joke. Bearing the unlikely moniker of Gaylord 'Greg' Focker (say the last name out loud, then imagine the mileage the script gets from it), Stiller's male nurse is madly in love with school teacher Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo). He wants to marry her, but decides to get Dad's permission first. So he accompanies Pam when she goes home to participate in her sister's wedding. Pam's mother, Dina (Blythe Danner), tries her best to make Greg feel at home, but Jack (De Niro) makes him nervous. A series of misadventures ensues, including one involving a potty-trained cat and an urn containing Jack's beloved mother's ashes, leading to an incident where Greg is strapped to a polygraph machine while Jack grills him about his intentions towards Pam. (This is a slightly more intense version of the typical father/boyfriend heart-to-heart chat.) And that's only the beginning - like in the Chevy Chase Vacation pictures, the disasters keep coming, each progressively worse than the last one.
The movie is not nearly as engaging as Stiller's best known effort to date, There's Something About Mary. The comedy here seems less spontaneous and more obviously scripted, and, consequently, not as riotous. Plus, while there was genuine chemistry between Stiller and Cameron Diaz in the Farrelly Brothers' film, the relationship between Greg and Pam in Meet the Parents lacks romantic credibility. These two don't click. I might buy them as brother and sister, but as lovers? Veterans De Niro and Danner connect more believably.
Meet the Parents is not a terrible film - there are enough amusing moments to keep things from becoming tedious - but it lacks a few of the key ingredients (like comic momentum) that would have made it a consistently entertaining endeavor. Much like the aforementioned Vacation films, this one proceeds according to a formula, allowing nothing to deter it from its preordained trajectory. Unfortunately, there are times when being on such a rigidly constrained track smothers the potential for off-the-wall comedy (I'm sure the desire to obtain a "PG-13" rating had something to do with that, as well). The only chances Meet the Parents takes are safe chances. During a scene when the septic tank backs up, I laughed because it was funny in a gross way, not because it was daring. With a lesser known cast using the same screenplay, this might have been headed directly to the Blockbuster near you. Even with Stiller and De Niro, Meet the Parents is an encounter that can be postponed until it's available on video.
Meet the Parents (United States, 2000)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo, Nicole DeHuff, Jon Abrahams, James Rebhorn, Phyllis George, Owen Wilson
Screenplay: James Herzfeld and John Hamburg
Cinematography: Peter James
Music: Randy Newman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures