Meet the Fockers (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I am not a fan of Meet the Parents, the 2000 film that introduced Ben Stiller to the joys of having an ex-CIA agent as a potential father-in-law. The movie is too much like a sit-com, although, as a counterbalance, it offers several big laughs. Meet the Fockers, the 2004 follow-up, plays much like the original, but with less effective humor. In the nearly two-hour running length, there are maybe five or six solid chuckles, resulting in a movie experience that is more tedious than entertaining. The problem lies in the screenplay (credited to John Hamburg and Jim Herzfeld, who also wrote installment #1), which latches on to the few clever and/or funny elements in the film and runs them into the ground via repetition.

Take the name of the Ben Stiller character: Gaylord Focker. Hearing him called "Gay Focker" was an amusing moment in Meet the Parents, but the gag works only once. That doesn't stop the filmmakers from overloading us with new Focker references and names. For example, Meet the Fockers mentions cousins Randy Focker and Orney Focker. If you laugh out loud reading those names, head for the theater. This is the kind of comedy that Meet the Fockers delivers. It doesn't miss an obvious, telegraphed joke, but never comes up with an instance of humor that isn't contrived, plotted, or stale.

The film starts a short time after the events related in Meet the Parents. Gaylord (a.k.a. Greg) is now in the "circle of trust" comprised by his fiancée, Pam (Teri Polo), and her parents, Jack and Dina Byrnes (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner). With the wedding approaching and Pam acknowledging a bun in the oven, it's time for conservatives Jack and Dina to meet Greg's aging hippie parents, Bernie and Roz Focker (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand). Of course, they're oil and water, but, instead of sparks flying, they sputter. Eventually, Dina comes around to Bernie and Roz's way of thinking, but Jack smells a cover-up, and decides to get the truth using a little Sodium Pentathol.

It's never clear in a film like Meet the Fockers whether we're supposed to care about any of the characters. On one hand, there are moments of flat melodrama that indicate the filmmakers believe there's some value to a happy ending. On the other hand, most of the feeble attempts at humor are made at the expense of the characters - most notably Ben Stiller's Greg. Stiller, of course, has become known as a human punching bag. His entire purpose for appearing in a movie is to either embarrass himself, be embarrassed by others, or some combination of both. Usually, it's at least moderately funny. In Meet the Fockers, it's not.

About four years ago, it was amusing to see Robert De Niro lampoon his tough-guy image. Now, however, that seems to be all he does. While there's nothing dishonorable about appearing in comedies, De Niro only plays one type of character in these throw-away films, and it's starting to wear thin. Having gone so deep into self-parody, one wonders whether De Niro is capable of coming back and giving a powerhouse dramatic performance, or whether audiences would buy him in such a role. Teenagers watching the "You talkin' to me?" clip from Taxi Driver break into laughter; they think De Niro is being funny.

It was an admittedly guilty pleasure to see Dustin Hoffman act like an idiot in the Huckabees movie, but we don't need a repeat performance here. And the biggest joke surrounding Barbra Streisand is that she signed to play Mother Focker. Her portrayal of sex therapist Roz is nothing special (although I did note that the camera shows her face from all sides, apparently dispelling the rumor that she only allows herself to be shot from one angle). Teri Polo returns from the first movie, looking attractive but having almost no screen presence. (In an effort to either raise her profile or earn some cash, she has apparently agreed to do a Playboy spread.)

Perhaps the funniest moment in the film occurs when a toddler utters "ass…hole" as his first word. It's crude, but at least (as presented) it's funny. That's more than can be said for the little dog humping everything in sight or Streisand kneeling atop De Niro, giving him a massage. If there's one thing that's disappointing about Meet the Fockers, it's that there seems to be the potential for a laughter-generating material, but it's never explored. There are few things sadder than wasted potential, unless it's sitting through 115 minutes of mediocrity desperately searching for a few decent jokes.

Meet the Fockers (United States, 2004)

Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo
Screenplay: John Hamburg, Jim Herzfeld
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Music: Randy Newman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2004-12-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1