Meet the Parents (again)
All the laffs of an 80s sitcom
By Rob Bricken

It's just embarrassing. Perhaps that's the beauty of this movie. Maybe it's a stunning examination of embarrassment, working on a myriad of levels, a treatise not to be forgotten, disguised as a comedy movie.

But probably not. Rather, imagine the standard situation-comedy. A character, basically good, is going to do or say something dumb. You know it. You feel it in the pit of your stomach. You are physically pained, waiting for the dumb event or misunderstanding to occur, and it's worse, because the event is so clearly telegraphed. You're embarrassed at the character's stupidity, gaining only momentary relief when the deed is done.

Meet the Parents is this moment, repeated ad infinitum. The always awkward, usually tense moment of a groom meeting his loved one's parents has provided eons of comedy using just this tactic. Which makes it a mystery that director Jay Roach (of Austin Powers infamy) would choose to do nothing more than have Ben Stiller, as would-be suitor Greg Focker, do wretchedly dumb thing after astoundingly stupid thing to alienate himself from his in-laws - Robert DeNiro and Beverly D'Angelo.

This type of humor is indeed proven. Expect mighty guffaws from those around you. But it begins to wear thin as Stiller refuses to let up in his poor decisions. Even his correct decisions lead to damning results. There's no letup from the embarrassment.

Even this might not be an unsalvageable problem if each episode weren't so obvious. There's a cat. Greg loses it. There's a beloved urn. Greg breaks it. Greg lights a cigarette. Greg sets valuable property afire.

No single prop in the movie is spared for the purposes of making Greg accidentally look like a jerk, and each item is used as it has been used countless times in other movies, when this idea was just as stale.

So the pit of embarrassment is unrelenting as Stiller inevitably messes up each contrived object wheeled into the story. DeNiro, perhaps being low-key, does his best to make the eventual emotional turnaround of the father-in-law seem legitimate rather than a quickly executed plot contrivance, but otherwise seems to be just churning out a performance. He is neither gruff nor lovable - neither scary nor entertaining enough.

Ben Stiller, who has clearly given up on his own comedy career, acts the beleaguered Focker with absolutely none of his usual talent and range (say, Flirting with Disaster to Permanent Midnight). His former comedic skills are wasted, with a few notable exceptions at the end, when his character is allowed to do more than give blank stares or look harried by his own misfortune. As for the blank stares, Stiller just can't do deadpan; he just looks dead.

Why is Stiller acting in inferior films, when he could be making much better films of his own, or at least choosing better ones?

Turning out memorable supporting performances is no one.

Thus, the audience will end up constantly embarrassed for the characters, embarrassed for the actors, embarrassed for the writer and director who cling madly to the gravely-mistaken view of what's funny.

Again, maybe this is Roach's plan. As a dialogue on embarrassment, Meet the Parents compares with the films of Fellini - a treatise of the psychological interworkings of embarrassment and the social nuances of such, as the audience is manipulated into feeling dread via their sympathy for Focker, then as Focker blows it or gets discovered at some indiscretion. The viewer is sucked into a first-person experience, feeling the same guilt, anger and fear as Focker no doubt does himself.

But seeing as it's billed a comedy, this probably isn't the case. At least the awful There's Something About Mary had an edge to it with its extreme gross-out humor and politically incorrect mocking of the handicapped. That was a little new and different, if unholy. Or the Austin Powers 2 fiasco which trotted out at least a fairly new premise, along with some really dumb bathroom humor. But the laffs in Meet the Parents are the exact same as found in the sitcoms of the 80s, when Dad brings home an important document, and you just know the kid's going to accidentally lose it, set it on fire, or something.

It's a shame for Meet the Parents that Mr. Belvedere isn't around to fix this problem too.