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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.


John Shaft might have first appeared on screen nearly thirty
years ago, but he’s still one cool dude. Actually the hero of
John Singleton’s smart, sassy reinvigoration of the 1970s
series isn’t the original Shaft at all, but his nephew, a New
York City cop of all things, who chucks his badge in revulsion
at a judicial system that lets a racist killer off the hook
and becomes a lone wolf vigilante, as his uncle had been. But
the spirit and style of the new flick is very much one with
that of the earlier three pictures based on Ernest Tidyman’s
character, and the result is not just a successful bit of
nostalgia but a vibrant, classy sample of American pulp
entertainment in its own right. It’s also a triumphant
reassertion of the promise that John Singleton showed in his
first film, the powerful “Boyz N the Hood” (1991); the young
director stumbled badly in his sophomore feature, the dreary,
pretentious “Poetic Justice” (1993), and his third effort,
“Rosewood” (1997), didn’t get the approbation it deserved
(despite some flaws, it was a intriguingly mythic tale), but
here he shows himself in fine command again.

Singleton’s helped, of course, by a tight, exciting script
marked by Richard Price’s flair at capturing the gritty
atmosphere of urban life and streetwise patois while providing
spurts of macabre humor and stylish violence; working together
beautifilly, Price and Singleton (along with co-writer
Shane Salerno) nail the tone that a twenty-first century
“Shaft” should have, in the form of a happily convoluted plot
involving not only the hero’s crusade to get his man but also
elements dealing with a damsel in distress, police corruption,
the power of wealth in the judicial system and drug gangs.
What’s remarkable is that although the narrative is quite
complex, the writers and director manage to keep it clear and
crisp; only rarely will a viewer ponder why something’s
happening. And Isaac Hayes’ familiar throbbing score keeps
things moving splendidly.

The cast excels, too. Samuel L. Jackson brings his patented
blend of offhanded charm and underlying menace to the title
character, achieving a sense of street nobility that’s just
perfect for the character. He’s seconded in a few scenes by
Richard Roundtree, smooth and suave as the uncle who’s still
in the mix and still in shape. The younger Shaft also has
some amusing assistants, most notably a wild-eyed, jive-spouting
driver played by Busta Rhymes, who gets a good many chuckles
even if at times he seems an updated version of Antonio “Huggy
Bear” Fargas from “Starsky and Hutch.” There’s also a nice
turn, for a change, from Vanessa Williams, as a tough female
cop who’s obviously sweet on Shaft.

But it’s the pair of villains that gives the picture its final,
most important lift. Christian Bale, fresh from his amazingly
controlled turn as Bateman in “American Psycho,” uncoils nicely
in this followup, bringing intensity and fearsomeness to the
rich, spoiled racist Walter Wade whom Shaft pursues. Even more
impressive is Jeffrey Wright (the star of “Basquiat”), who
mixes humor and viciousness in flawless proportions as
“Peoples” Hernandez, a local drug lord who links up with Wade
to off a potential witness against him and build up his own
business in the process. Wright gives a witty, impishly evil
spin to the character (and a great accent to boot); the screen
hasn’t seen anything to match it since Benicio Del Toro nearly
stole the show in “The Usual Suspects.”

There are, of course, some flaws here. The members of the
Hernandez gang are presented in the cliched Keystone Crooks
fashion; they fire interminable rounds of ammunition at our
hero, but never manage to hit a thing. (Are there any worse
marksmen in the world than action-movie heavies?) The pace
of the picture occasionally goes a bit flat. The “police
corruption” angle isn’t handled as smoothly as it might be (and
one character’s “return from the dead” isn’t properly explained).
The final confrontation between Shaft and “Peoples” isn’t
nearly as exuberantly staged as one might have expected. And
the last twist seems like something lifted from an old “Law
and Order” episode.

These are relatively minor problems, however. Recent years have
seen a plethora of bad remakes of old films and dismal
bigscreen versions of beloved television shows, but this time,
they’ve gotten things just about right. “Shaft” offers an even
better time that its seventies predecessors; despite its
occasional lapses, it’s great fun, easily the best example of
pure popcorn escapism that the summer season’s offered so far.