October 5, 2000

Parental Discretion Advised

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Relationships are not easy things. They are filled with ups and downs, fighting, making up, and learning (sometimes about unpleasant things). All in all, they are extremely dynamic and complicated. Which is why it is such a wonderful thing when they work, when they work so well that two people decide that they want to spend the rest of their lives together.

But there is another side, a scarier side, a side that simultaneously reveals a past and a present that may be better left in guise — meeting the parents. And such is the case in Jay Roach’s (Austin Powers) Meet the Parents.

Meet Greg F-o-c-k-e-r, pronounced phonetically. Focker (Ben Stiller) is a male nurse with an unfortunate name who is ready to propose to Pam (Teri Polo of TV’s Felicity), but not until he has the permission of her father, Jack Brynes (Robert De Niro).

But Jack couldn’t be more intimidating. Pam advises light-hearted, comical Greg that, “humor is wasted on my parents.”

When Greg and Pam have to spend the weekend at her parents’ house for her sister’s wedding, things go far beyond the realm of uncomfortable. For the first hour and a half of the film, Greg awkwardly tries to pass one uneasy joke or inappropriate action after another. One has to wonder whether to feel pity for him, or just decide that he is a schmuck for not only doing the things that he does, but for not running away from the situation as fast as is humanly possible.

In the later part of the movie, our discomfort dissolves, the plot thickens, and it becomes much easier to root for the handsome Stiller. Things become particularly scary when it is revealed that De Niro’s vocation as a “rare plant dealer” is merely a cover for his job in the CIA as a human lie detector. This obviously makes the situation even graver for Greg, who repeatedly gets caught red-handed in a sea of white lies.

While the premise of the film is certainly not original (similar to the Father of the Bride movies), this plot has its quirky, offbeat aspects that make it a great work. For example, De Niro has an unusually fond affection for his pet cat; he teaches it to do feats normally only undertaken by dogs, with one exception: this cat uses a toilet (no, he doesn’t flush).

Blythe Danner (Gwenyth Paltrow’s real-life mother) plays Greg’s prospective mother-in-law. Her subtle yet hilarious quips are often difficult to pick up on, but similarly hard to forget. She carries the film much further than Polo, who never extends beyond the pretty girl who De Niro and Stiller both love so dearly. In fact, Polo is probably the only character in the film without a unique personality and the ability to extend her role beyond its typecast.

In the end, it is not the relationship between Greg and Pam that is the most distinguished, but rather the one between Greg and Jack. One reason for this may be that the actors behind these characters are both trying to accomplish the same thing, which is to deviate from their usual strengths. Stiller is forced to try not to be funny, his strong point as an actor. De Niro, whose earlier career was laden with innumerable performances as a serious actor, is forced to be more light-hearted and delve into humor. And while he has already attempted humor in Analyze This, he is more successful and his comicality flows with a much greater ease in this attempt.

De Niro and Stiller live up to the prestige that has come to be expected from them, as do most of the other members of the cast. But director Jay Roach has exceeded expectations with this film, which is much more complex than his previous undertakings. He successfully worked the characters and story together to deliver a well-structured and ultimately enjoyable film.

Archived article by Sara Katz