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Meet the Fockers (2004) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 22 December 2004
This is the “House of Frankenstein” of 1970s movies. As that old movie first brought together Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man and Dracula, “Meet the Fockers” stars not only Robert De Niro but also Dustin Hoffman. But wait, there’s more. It also stars Barbra Streisand in her first movie since 1996. De Niro and Hoffman have worked together before (in the little-remembered “Sleepers” and the more respectable “Wag the Dog”), but neither have appeared with Streisand until now. For long-time moviegoers, it takes a while to get over the pleasant surprise of seeing them all together in one movie. Plus Ben Stiller, Blythe Danner and Teri Polo, who also star in this belated sequel to “Meet the Parents.” (2000).

This is the very rare sequel that’s much better than the original, even though it has the same only-okay director (Jay Roach) and writing team (John Hamburg, James Hertzfeld). The script is crudely structured, with several unnecessary plot complications, unlikely coincidences, and ka-ka poo-poo gags (literally, in the latter case). But it’s so sunny and cheerful from beginning to end, and the cast, particularly those three big stars, has such obvious fun working together that the movie is, at times, grandly entertaining.

One of the most interesting side elements is that though Hoffman, De Niro and Streisand have been famously given to occasional prima donna behavior, there were no reports of conflict from the “Meet the Fockers” set—and it’s blindingly clear that they all had a great time. Hoffman, in particularly, has rarely been this buoyant and lively; Streisand gleefully parades her Jewishness sprinkling her dialogue with Yiddish words and grandly Streisand gestures; De Niro finally looks at home in a comedy, more relaxed and open than in previous comic endeavors, including “Meet the Parents.” It’s also a warm and friendly movie that, while it couldn’t be said to be taking the high road, never really offends. Even that all-too-obvious title is confronted head on, beating the audience to many of the obvious gags: if they call attention to the elephant in the room, as Kevin Spacey said in another context, they’ve beaten the audience to the punch.

The movie has some fun tweaking our expectations: in the first movie, male nurse Ben Focker (Stiller) could hardly lift a hand without causing a catastrophe. The first few minutes of the movie set him up for one disaster after another—and he gets through all of them (well, almost all) scot-free. The filmmakers even set up what look like certain gags—then gracefully dodge them at the last moment. Fooled you THAT time!

Ben and his fiancée Pam (Polo) plan to wed in six months, but first they and her parents, ex-CIA agent Jack Byrnes (De Niro) and Dina (Danner), are heading for Florida so they can get together with Ben’s parents, Bernie (Hoffman) and Roz (Streisand). They’re taking along Little Jack (twins Spencer and Bradley Pickren), the infant son of Pam’s sister. And they’re traveling in Jack’s monstrous RV, a giant black thing that looks the size of a railway car. Inside, it’s full of the latest household conveniences, and includes a secret control room for Jack to indulge in his passion for surveillance. But far fewer gags involve this behemoth than you would expect.
Although Ben has told the Byrnes that his parents are a doctor and a lawyer, we see very quickly that they’re old-time hippies who’ve clung happily to their alternative life style. We, but not the Byrneses (at first), see that Roz is a successful sex therapist specializing in geriatric cases. And we eventually learn that on the day Greg—Gaylord to his parents—was born, Bernie quit working as a lawyer—or anything else. He’s a happy, vigorous house husband, proud of his cooking and his son.

They’re so radically unlike the Byrnes—or at least Jack—that the movie seems to be set up for a thunderous clash of parental egos and life styles, but, surprisingly (and thankfully), that all-too-obvious collision never quite arrives. And when something like it does turn up at the very end, it’s dealt with in a matter of minutes. Instead, the movie spends time following Greg’s nervous apprehension over just such a clash, and his own repeated little collisions with Jack and Jack’s by-the-rules way of handling everything. Including Little Jack. Big Jack is crazy about the baby, and communicates with the child in an amazingly believable form of sign language. And the twins are delightful throughout; Little Jack is a sunny, beautiful child who rarely gives anyone any trouble. When he does, it’s their fault. Even the child’s use of a classic swear word (rhymes with “glass pole”), is defanged by the kid’s amusing expressions. How did they get the kid to DO that?

Obviously, the movie is laced with crude vulgarities, this time focusing on, um, elimination of the solid kind. We never see it, but it does get talked about a lot. There’s an attempt to top the astonishing bit in the original involving Mr. Jinx, the Byrnes’ cat, and a spilled urn of “cremains;” here it’s Roz’s treasured scrapbook of “Gaylord”’s youth, including his carefully-preserved foreskin, which at a dinner winds up—well, there is a reason that Bernie quickly suggests ordering Chinese. There’s more about Mr. Jinx and the tiny dog belonging to Bernie and Roz; the little dog has a habit of humping everything it runs across. Yes, this is vulgar, but it’s really pretty brief.

The stumbling block, at least in terms of story, is when Jack learns that Greg lost his virginity fifteen years before to his family’s exuberant maid Isabel (Alanna Ubach), who now runs a catering company. She lives with her evidently fatherless son Jorge (Ray Santiago), who’s fifteen and, thanks to good acting on Santiago’s part, but less successful makeup, looks very much like Greg is his father. This idea occupies roughly the third quarter of the movie, and gives some signs that someone tried to minimize it—and well they should. It’s tiresome and obvious; even if it’s true, it’s a big “So what?” It’s clumsily set up, and clumsily dealt with.

The central element of the original film, Jack’s mistrust of Greg, is revived by the Jorge storyline, and there’s some talk about Jack’s treasured “circle of trust.” But the focus is really on the performances of the three long-time stars, and they easily shoulder the burden. Most of Hoffman’s and Streisand’s movies have been dramas, sometimes very heavy ones at that; here, they’re glowing golden agers, relaxing in a movie that doesn’t center on them, having fun with their colorful roles. De Niro, one of the executive producers here, has tended to be clumsy in prior comedies, relying on repeated facial expressions (eyelids down, eyebrows up), but he really shines this time around. He’s far more human than he has been in any of his other comedies, and so likeable that the movie can only make a half-hearted, unconvincing attempt to make him something of a heavy.

Some of what De Niro is required to do is too obviously in there just to be funny, as when he hauls out an artificial breast he straps on to feed Little Jack. He refers to it as his “mannary gland,” and it turns up once too often. He also insists on using a child-rearing method that it seems unlikely even this stiff guy would be unlikely to resort to. But the main plot thrust in “Meet the Fockers,” as in the first film, comes down to warming up doctrinaire Jack Byrnes. This time, it’s more convincing.

John Schwartzman photographs in warm, bright colors on Rusty Smith’s attractive, lived-in-looking sets—the Fockers live in an old house near a swamp somewhere in Florida, but there are, amazingly, no alligator gags. Hoffman and Streisand’s costumes are well-chosen and breezy-looking; he always wears loud shirts (but, oddly, not Aloha shirts), while she’s in soft, Earth-tone fabrics. They both look great, especially the gloriously tan Hoffman, who has rarely been this exuberant.

There are some things the movie takes seriously, never really kidding. Yes, Ben and Roz are embarrassingly fond of Greg; they have a tribute to him, “the Gaylord Wall,” which features ribbons and trophies. Jack remarks that he didn’t know they gave ribbons for ninth place. But though the Fockers’ behavior (and name) are somewhat embarrassing, we are not invited to laugh at them for their devotion to their son.

With performers as eye-catching as Stiller, De Niro, Hoffman and Streisand, it’s all too easily to overlook Blythe Danner, but she’s warm and winning, too. She’s actually a lot more like the Fockers, or at least wants to be, than she is like Jack, but she does love her husband. Mostly, she watches everything go on around her with an expression of amused interest, stepping in only when she’s really needed. Teri Polo has the movie’s most thankless role. Pam has to be nice and sweet and pretty, always forgiving of Greg, always tolerant of her controlling father. For a while, when she learns she’s pregnant, it seems that her character might deepen a bit, but no, the pregnancy is there primarily as a test of Jack’s trust in his daughter, and Greg, and the Fockers.

The six leads, and the baby, are really the whole cast. You might not recognize famed stand-up comic Shelley Berman as one of Roz’s clients—I didn’t—or Time Blake Nelson, as the most pompous, rules-following southern lawman since the heyday of Don Knotts’ indelible, classic Barney Fife. They’re only in briefly; Owen Wilson turns up at the end in his “Meet the Parents” role, but again, he’s dealt with quickly.

Yes, this isn’t really a classy comedy; it’s cheesy, obvious and rude, but the three long-time stars, and Stiller, are having such a grand time, and are so damned funny for most of the movie, that you can easily forgive “Meet the Fockers” a hell of a lot. Including the title.

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