** 1/2 Stars
Directed by Jay Roach
Writing Credits: Greg Glienna
Dreamworks/Universal * 108 minutes
Remember AFTER HOURS? You know, the Martin Scorsese film in which Griffin Dunne endures two hours of some of the most horrifying psychological horrors imaginable? Remember how that film seemed to be shot in "feel-o-vision," so that when you left the theater, you felt as if you had endured everything that had happened to poor old Griffin? And you were utterly exhausted, weren't you?
Now imagine that kind of experience in a comedy, combine it with your memories of the time you first met your significant other's parents, and you have envisioned MEET THE PARENTS.
Greg is in love with Pam, and wants to propose. However, when he discovers that Pam's sister's fiancé has asked their father's permission, he decides to wait and do the same, only to find that Pam's father, Jack Byrnes, is not only Robert DeNiro, but an ex-CIA agent to boot, who lives with his doughty wife Dina (a wryly funny Blythe Danner) in one of those flawless upper-middle-class white-pillared homes in Connecticut.
Oh, one other thing. Greg's last name is Focker. Need I say more?
This premise, combined with some Rube Goldbergian plot devices involving lost luggage, a Himalayan cat aptly named Mr. Jinx, an urn containing the ashes of Jack's mother, a story about milking a cat (don't ask) a pack of cigarettes, a rare tulip in a pot, a toilet that won't flush properly, a particularly nasty game of water volleyball, and a hand-carved altar, turn the Byrnes' lovely Connecticut house into a house of horrors for young Greg. Will he win over the anal and twisted Jack? Will Pam be able to break the toolbelt strings? What is with Dina's obsession with sex, anyway? And is the lovely Pam really worth all this? If you can stand to sit through MEET THE PARENTS, you'll find out.
Ben Stiller's Greg is a Woody Allen character with a stronger chin and a harder edge; not just any edge, but a razor-sharp, truly nasty one. Stiller is making a career out of playing guys who seem to wear a sign that says "kick me," but who also carry a shiv in their back pocket, the better with which to slit your throat. Stiller is an acquired taste, one I have not been altogether successful in acquiring. In MEET THE PARENTS, he has some great moments: a silly light-to-light drag race with DeNiro, a verbal thrashing of a particularly officious flight attendant, and some laugh-in-spite-of-yourself slapstick physical comedy. But Stiller's clenched-teeth undercurrent of homicidal maniac makes his characters creepier than they are funny. Greg (whose real first name is every bit a unfortunate as his last) would be a difficult character to empathize with, were it not for the nonstop stream of abuse he endures in his seventy-two hours at the Byrnes home.
Robert DeNiro seems to be settling into a comfortable middle age, making the transition from edgy young Italian male (as opposed to Stiller's edgy young angsty Jewish male) to big old cuddly fearsome guy. He began flexing his comic chops in the hilarious ANALYZE THIS, but while it's amusing to watch him cooing over a sneering Himalayan cat, and reading a sappy poem about his dead mother, Jack is too scary and malevolent a character to be truly funny.
As Jack's dizzy and sex-obsessed wife Dina, Blythe Danner shows us just who the really talented one in the Paltrow family is (and it ain't the young blonde star of DUETS). Still breathtakingly gorgeous at fifty-something, Danner manages to inhabit this criminally underdeveloped character, stealing the show from not just Stiller and DeNiro, but also the cat.
In important but lesser roles, Teri Polo is a perfect straight man to Stiller's deadpan zaniness; perhaps just a bit too perfect. Her facial takes in the face of Stiller's painful attempts to ingratiate (such as the milking a cat story) are priceless, yet we never really buy that she'd fancy nurse Greg over Owen Wilson's shallow-but-philosophical ex-boyfriend Kevin. With his skewed-nose, and Elvis-lipped cartoonish handsomeness, Wilson (SHANGHAI NOON) is rapidly becoming one of my favorite "steal this movie" character actors. Utterly deadpan as Kevin the Perfect Guy, Wilson perfectly embodies that blessed-by-fate golden boy you really want to hate, but can't. After a quasi-thoughful rant in which Kevin reveals that Jesus is his role model, Jack informs him that Greg is Jewish, accompanied by withering looks. When told that Greg is Jewish, Kevin eschews the condescension we expect, instead grinning broadly, patting Greg on the shoulder, and saying (in a dare we say it Christlike manner), "Hey, so was JC!"
MEET THE PARENTS is a peculiar and excruciatingly uncomfortable film. It's funny without being enjoyable, and you walk out feeling vaguely unclean for having been entertained by a character's utter humiliation, however "victorious" he may seem at the uncharacteristically sappy end (an ending which unfortunately just SCREAMS "sequel"). Oh you'll laugh, but you'll hate yourself in the morning.
MEET THE PARENTS official site
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