There’s a good deal of 1979’s hilarious farce “The In-Laws” in “Meet the Parents,” and though neither Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg’s script nor Jay Roach’s direction quite matches the work of Andrew Bergman or Arthur Hiller in the earlier flick, the new picture contains enough belly-laughs and sly jokes to become one of the bigger crowd-pleasers of the fall. It also has Ben Stiller, doing the befuddled shtick that served him so well in “There’s Something About Mary,” and Robert De Niro, proving, after his disastrous turn in “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” that the comic timing he showed in “Analyze This” hasn’t permanently deserted him.
“Parents” is essentially a comedy of frustration, akin to the scripts that John Hughes devised for the original “Vacation” and then “Planes Trains and Automobiles”–or, on a far more exalted level, that of W.C. Fields for the incomparable 1934 “It’s a Gift”. (There’s even a very funny airport sequence, involving Kali Rocha as a snotty attendant, that would have been perfect in “Planes.”) The central character is a poor schmo named Greg Focker (his surname, with its attendant invitation to mispronunciation, will give you some notion of the juvenile quality of much of the humor). A male nurse besotted with beauteous Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), a Chicago schoolteacher, he travels back east to meet her family, headed by stern, secretive Jack (Robert De Niro). It will come as no surprise that the bumbling Focker encounters (or creates) disaster after disaster in trying to induce Jack to give his blessing to Greg’s marriage proposal; nor will it shock anybody to learn that, despite all the problems, things turn out just fine. (This is a comedy, after all.)
There isn’t much subtlety to the writing or helming here–when, for instance, an urn prominently displayed in the Pryce dining room is identified as holding the ashes of Jack’s beloved mother and Greg then proceeds to pop the cork from a bottle of champagne, it’s obvious what’s going to happen, and Roach stages the scene with TV-sitcom directness. But the sequence still generates the intended laughs, thanks to Stiller’s boyish ineptitude and De Niro’s dyspeptic demeanor; and many other similarly telegraphed moments still hit their targets, thanks to the stars. The revelation of Jack’s employment history doesn’t have the exuberance or cleverness that Bergman bestowed on Peter Falk’s career in “The In-Laws” (to tell you the truth, the shambling Falk milked more fun from his role than De Niro does here), and the cuminating confrontation between the two men is a bit flat, but by the time the movie’s over most audience members will still be chortling contentedly. And that’s what counts.
In what’s essentially a two-character piece, the supporting cast generally has little to do–fluttery Blythe Danner is barely noticeable as Byrnes’ spouse, and Teri Polo pretty anonymous as Focker’s squeeze. There’s frankly nobody here who adds spice to the Alphonse-and-Gaston routine that Stiller and De Niro are playing in the way that crazed autocrat Richard Libertini did to Falk and Alan Alan’s softshoe in “The In-Laws”–presumably that’s what Owen Wilson is supposed to provide as Pam’s eccentric ex-boyfriend, but though he’s amiably goofy in his usual low-key way, he doesn’t really add much to the comic mix. (Certainly more could have been made of Jon Abrahams as Pam’s dippy brother Denny, too.) Happily Stiller and De Niro work well enough together that one tends to forgive the thinness of the concept and execution, and they’re aided by at least one other cast member who outdoes himself–a cat named Mr. Jinx who’s beloved of Pryce and manages to make Focker’s stay as miserable as possible. This feline is a true scene-stealer, and it’s no wonder that it took three Himalayans to play him.
“Meet the Parents” is hardly a comic masterpiece–indeed, one wouldn’t expect one from a writer (Herzfeld) who penned 1998’s lamentable “Meet the Deedles.” But like “The Replacements” earlier this year, it generates a surprisingly large number of laughs from a shopworn premise, and most viewers will find it uproarious despite its weaknesses.