|Meet the Parents (Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 06 March 2001|
Together with the earlier 'Analyze This,' 'Meet the Parents' went a long way in establishing Robert De Niro, of all people, as a comic actor. Actually, if you watch both films closely, he's not doing comedy performances at all, but playing his roles completely straight. It's the circumstances that are comic -- not that De Niro doesn't get his share of laughs.
In this case, the circumstances derive from a little-known 1992 movie of the same title directed, co-written by and starring Greg Glienna. Yes, 'Meet the Parents' is a remake, scripted by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg and directed by Jay Roach, who helmed both "Austin Powers" movies. The script is very good, particularly in terms of structure -- it builds very well to a climax that consists of two guys in a room talking, but which is emotionally satisfying on a surprisingly warm level. It's hard to tell if Roach is a good director; the Austin Powers outings depended so much on the premise (and, in the second film, on grossly disgusting jokes) that it's hard to see just what Roach's contributions were. His only other feature as a director, 'Mystery, Alaska,' is bland and uninteresting.
Certainly with 'Meet the Parents' he has the advantage of a terrific cast. Ben Stiller plays Greg Focker, a male nurse living in Chicago, and in love with Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo). But when he's just on the verge of proposing to her, Greg learns that Teri's sister Debbie (Nicole DeHuff) is about to get married -- because her fiancé had the foresight to ask Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) for her hand in marriage. Things will obviously go more smoothly for Greg if he does the same -- so he must now meet the parents.
He and Pam fly off to suburban New York, where they're greeted by Jack and Dina Byrnes (Blythe Danner) in their handsome, well-appointed home. (Excellent production design by Rusty Smith, who uses a red, white and blue color scheme for the interiors of the Byrnes house.) Things already started to go badly for Greg when the airline lost his luggage, and he has to borrow clothes from both Jack and teenaged Denny Byrnes (Jon Abrahams, rarely seen in the movie). Jack, an ex-CIA operative, is deeply suspicious of Greg for any number of reasons, not the least being that he's naturally deeply suspicious.
And he and Greg have endless clashes that both try to shrug off. Jack loves cats, especially big fluffy Mr. Jinx, Greg loves dogs. Jack hates smokers, Greg is addicted to cigarettes. Jack is subtly right wing, Greg left wing. Debbie's fiancé Bob (Thomas McCarthy) is a doctor -- as his father Larry (James Rebhorn) -- while Greg is a "mere" nurse. When Greg innocently happens upon Jack's secret lair beneath the house, decorated with photos of him with the likes of Colin Powell and Bill Clinton, Jack insists on giving him a lie-detector test, which does not go well.
This is because to make things go smoother, Greg has haplessly been relating a series of minor lies, all of which circle back and bite him on the butt. Things get worse when they all go off to the mansion-like home of Kevin Rawley (Owen Wilson), Pam's ex-fiancé, who's a dot com squillionaire, deeply spiritual, deeply kind and artistically talented -- out of a single huge block of wood he's carved a wedding altar for Tom and Debbie. In his indoor pool, everyone engages in a lively game of volleyball -- and Greg ends up giving Debbie a bloody nose.
Things get worse.
The idea is that the worse they get, the funnier they get, but it doesn't quite work that way. The best scenes in the film aren't the spectacular comedy scenes, such as when Greg accidentally reduces the Byrnes' back yard to a mass of sewage and sets fire to Kevin's hand-carved altar. Roach cannot make this kind of gag seem both inevitable and spontaneous; almost all his big-gag scenes have a very mechanical feel, big windup toys that go exactly where you expect them to. The best big-gag scene, involving dinner, a champagne cork, the urn containing the ashes of Jack's mother, and Mr. Jinx (secretly desperate for a sandbox), depends more on the script than the direction and editing. Still, that's a grand, ghoulish gag, the most famous in the film.
The best stuff really is the uncomfortable dialog scenes between De Niro and Stiller who, unexpectedly, make a terrific team -- but probably only in these roles. (Which they're expected to repeat in a sequel.) Both of them are uncomfortable when together; Jack knows Greg is sleeping with his daughter, but also that Pam loves him, so he has to try to make a go of it, even though he thinks Greg is all wrong as a son in law. Stiller has a slight edge all the time, making him a bit annoying to us, which allows us to sympathize a bit with De Niro. Yet it's still Stiller who has to impress De Niro, while everything he tries goes wrong. Even when he's not trying, things go wrong. But De Niro is subtle enough to also suggest that he worries about Stiller judging him. This tension creates a good comic balance in the scenes; if it had all been Stiller trying to impress De Niro, there would have been no sense of originality, and it would have been less realistic. In their last scene together at the airport (the "human lie detector" scene), the balance is finally restored, firmly and believably. It's the best scene in the movie.
The premise is familiar to almost everyone: most of us have had to meet the parents of our prospective partners, most of us have seriously worried about making not just a good impression, but the right good impression. 'Meet the Parents' builds on this quite well -- but as usual with comedies these days, also goes too far a lot of the time, and other times, just isn't as funny as it should be. The decks are stacked too much against poor Greg; too many coincidences pile up until we're weary of them. The film needed a lighter touch and a brisker pace; the excellent cast -- it's great right down to supporting roles, such as Kali Rocha as a maddeningly officious flight attendant -- would have been up to any challenge. It's too bad that the film wasn't more original, fresher, livelier. It's funny, but it could have been much better.
The same is true of the supplementary materials. The DVD includes a couple of deleted scenes, narrated by Roach and editor John Poll, which don't add anything to our enjoyment. The outtakes, mostly actors laughing when they blow lines, are similarly minor, although it is amusing to hear De Niro refer to house cat Jinx as "strictly a cow's hat." And again, the commentary tracks are typical and not particularly interesting. There's one with Roach and Poll, the more interesting of the two; the other features Roach, Stiller (who's pretty funny), producer Jane Rosenthal and, surprisingly, the ordinarily reticent De Niro -- who's reticent here, too. Roach keeps trying to coax comments out of the actor, who usually responds briefly, sometimes unintelligibly. While there are too many DVDs that would greatly benefit from commentary tracks, there are some where the commentary tracks are beside the point; 'Meet the Parents' is one of these.
The other extras include a standard behind-the-scenes documentary (where De Niro appears once, briefly), a couple of truly stupid games, and some CD-Rom features of little interest. It might have been more interesting to include some scenes from the first 'Meet the Parents,' but it's only briefly alluded to.
For those equipped, DTS is available, and is rendered very well. But 'Meet the Parents' just isn't the sort of film that is greatly enhanced by superb sound. As mentioned earlier, the best scenes are the dialog scenes, and those play front and center as they should. If you like expertly-rendered sounds of a cat urinating, though, this film does deliver.