This film should have been a lot of fun. It’s directed by Jar Roach, of “Austin Powers” fame, it stars Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro (who was surprisingly funny in “Analyse This”) and the premise is amusing in itself: some dude goes to spend a week-end with his girlfriend’s family and, as if it wasn’t awkward enough, the father turns out to be a retired CIA “human lie detector”. And it all starts out pretty well, with Stiller’s earnest male nurse Greg Focker being all cute with his Pam, an adorable kindergarten teacher. With not a lot more than a montage of sweet couple moments over the credits and Randy Newman’s theme song (he scored the film), I was hooked. I thought Greg and Pam deserved to be happy together. Of course, being a guy, I especially felt for Greg, as I felt for Ted, that other fool in love that Stiller played two years ago in “There’s Something About Mary”. Yet that film had truck loads of laughs and heart, while “Meet the Parents” soon becomes overbearingly cruel and only modestly funny.
Maybe I wasn’t supposed to like Stiller in the film; the filmmakers obviously didn’t. The whole film is about him failing, being humiliated and ‘fock’ing up some more. Some of it is just fun, like when Greg keeps making social faux pas, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, then trying to save face by making up white lies but only digging himself deeper in embarrassment. And then there’s De Niro’s father-in-law from hell, who just doesn’t trust Greg. Things start to derail when the broad comedy comes rolling in, and Greg begins screwing up big time. Should I give a few examples, or would I be ruining the film’s big gags, which aren’t even all that funny anyway? Well, you’ve seen the trailer, so you know that at some point Greg overflows the sceptic tank and that his in-laws end up covered in human waste. Now, that’s comedy ! Well, most of the film is a series of such mishaps inadvertently caused by Stiller, followed by rounds and rounds of him being mocked, yelled at and called ‘Focker’ this and ‘Focker’ that. I know, it’s his name, but I thought it got unfunny, obnoxious and just plain rude real fast.
I don’t know how to explain what really threw me off with this film. It’s not just that it’s not very funny, unoriginal and unmemorable. It made me laugh here and there, actually, and it isn’t exactly boring or particularly inept. Maybe it’s just that the gentle soul in me had trouble accepting the movie’s nice-guy-as-loser logic. Even though the Farrellys stuck Stiller in many an horrible situation in “Mary”, you always felt that they cared for the character anyway, and in any case, the gags were hysterically funny. But here… Well, let me give you another example. Greg, the in-laws and Pam’s old boyfriend (Owen Wilson) are in the pool playing volleyball, and Greg keeps missing shots and being yelled at and called a Focker. He’s all worked up, so during the next play, he spikes the ball with all he’s got… and hits Pam’s sister in the face, making her bleed. To me, this isn’t funny. At all. This is taking a guy who’s already down and beating on him, making him even more of a failure. And the whole film is like that, or almost. And Greg just keeps on taking it with his mouth shut, all the abuse, the humiliation… Very frustrating, isn’t it?
There are two moments late in the film where Stiller finally gets to vent his anger, and it’s glorious and very, very funny (i.e. the scene on the plane and the video footage at the end). And there you have it, this is what is missing from the remainder of the picture. Why not even the field a little and have the nice guy mark a few points from time to time? Have him not make an ass of himself if only for a scene, and give De Niro a taste of his medicine or something. Otherwise you end up with a film like “Meet the Parents”, with a lot of potential wasted in favour of mean, broad comedy.