Zipper fly front with black vinyl stripes waistband and leg opening. Slash pockets with metal studs.
Ben Stiller is so comfortable serving up his own discomfort and embarrassment for our amusement, he makes it look easy. Unlike many previous practitioners of humor-through-self-humiliation, from early Woody Allen to the late Chris Farley, Stiller doesn’t look like he’s supposed to be the butt of the joke. With his frat boy good looks and nice guy demeanor, he’s more like the jock next door who skates by on his charm than the dorky nebbish who accidentally zips his genitals up in his pants on prom night. His reassuringly bland presence makes his awkwardness and inevitable mortification that much more tangible; you can easily put yourself in his shoes and feel the flop sweat soak into your soles.
In Meet the Parents, Stiller plays Greg Focker, a male nurse (both surname and occupation are treated – ill-advisedly – as bottomless reservoirs of gut-busting humor) in love with Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo, this month’s Heather Graham). Greg is about to propose to Pam when he learns that her sister will be married the following weekend, having finally secured the blessing of the Byrnes’ father, Jack (Robert De Niro). Picking up on the vibe that Jack’s permission is more than a mere formality in the Byrnes clan, Greg decides to postpone popping the question until after he has met Pam’s parents.
Upon arriving at the Byrne family’s Oyster Bay homestead, Greg immediately fails to hit it off with Jack, an overly literal no-nonsense type with little patience for Greg’s attempts at ingratiating humor. As Greg soon discovers, Jack is an ex-CIA operative (shades of The In-Laws) with hidden cameras stashed around the house and a deeply suspicious attitude towards anyone with designs on entering the Byrne family (or as he calls it, "the circle of truth"). Jack’s first impression of his prospective son-in-law gets worse as the weekend progresses, with the increasingly hapless Greg setting off an escalating series of comical calamities, causing thousands of dollars worth of property damage and millions in royalty payments to Jerry Lewis.
Meet the Parents began life as a short film by comedian Greg Glienna, and it probably should have stayed there. It certainly hasn’t been re-imagined as a feature-length project. The plot chugs along in fits and starts, and there’s no third act to speak of – the action is yanked to an unconvincing halt. Director Jay Roach, who shaped the original Austin Powers into a fizzy pop confection, here contributes a flat, overlit TV-ready look, and the transparent way he sets up the jokes simultaneously flatters and insults the audience. We can see the gags coming up the Long Island Expressway, and as soon as we’ve congratulated ourselves for figuring out what will happen when, say, Greg chases the Byrne family cat onto the roof and finds his discarded pack of cigarettes, we’re bonked on the head by the scene unfolding exactly as predicted.
Screenwriters Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg were apparently too busy rifling through the Pink Panther playbook to supply fully imagined roles for the supporting cast to play. Teri Polo can’t do anything with a character that exists solely as a device to bring Stiller and De Niro together, and Blythe Danner is wasted as Jack’s wife Dina, a ditzy Stepford type who barely seems present – it’s as if Danner gave most of her performance while the crew was at lunch. Owen Wilson makes the most of his brief appearance as Pam’s ex-fiance, but like so much of the movie, his character is all set up and no follow-through. That leaves it to Stiller and De Niro to carry the picture, and they almost pull it off.
When it comes to comedy, De Niro’s track record is decidedly mixed. In previous efforts (We’re No Angels, Rocky & Bullwinkle), he’s often tried too hard, scrunching his face into a crinkly mug and sputtering his lines in a frantic effort to generate laughs. There’s a bit of that here as well, but as in last year’s Analyze This, De Niro has generally learned to relax and let the humor flow from the situations. He brings a droll, understated delivery to a scene where Greg and Jack drive to the store listening to Peter, Paul and Mary; it’s one of the few decent bits not given away in the trailer. He and Stiller have a great give-and-take, and Meet the Parents always threatens to turn into a good movie when they’re onscreen together, but it never quite makes the leap. In a strange way, it almost makes you yearn for a sequel – one that will cut these two loose from the creaky plot machinations and let them run wild. Until then, you’re better off just renting The In-Laws.