Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo, James Rebhorn, Jon Abrahams, Owen Wilson
Written by: Jim Herzfeld, John Hamburg, Alexander Payne (uncredited), Jim Taylor (uncredited)
Directed by: Jay Roach
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, drug references and language
Running Time: 108
Date: 10/06/2000
IMDB

Meet the Parents (2000)

2 Stars (out of 4)

The Clod Father

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I have nothing against comedies where fate sticks out a foot to trip the hero and everything goes wrong. I do have something against comedies where the hero is so dumb and awkward that he causes everything that goes wrong. Unfortunately, Meet the Parents is such a comedy.

Ben Stiller plays Greg Focker (the movie gets lots of mileage out of that name), a nurse in a big city hospital. He's about to propose to his schoolteacher girlfriend, Pam (Teri Polo from Sports Night), until he finds out that he's supposed to meet her parents first. Her parents (Robert DeNiro and Blythe Danner) turn out to be pretty horrible, but they're reasonable human beings compared to Focker. Nonetheless, Focker tries his best to win their affections, despite the fact that everything he does goes wrong.

As directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers), the movie does the usual Hollywood bit of setting up the gags way in advance so that even a coma patient can spot them. For example, we're introduced to DeNiro's prized cat, who is never to be let outside. We're also shown a special urn containing the ashes of DeNiro's beloved mother, which sits on a mantle overlooking the dinner table. We know at some point that the cat will be let outside and that the urn will be smashed. And that's exactly what happens. Big laughs ensue.

Roach and his screenwriters Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg miss out on many potential gags. They're too wrapped up in the obvious to see that it would be funnier to not show DeNiro's and Danner's reactions to any of Stiller's antics. If it was just a one-sided nightmare from the point of view of his character alone, it might have worked. But the movie instead tries to be a gushy romantic comedy where everyone learns to love one another in the end. Ick.

Smaller scenes are also ruined. In one scene, DeNiro confronts Stiller about his presumed drug use inside the changing booth of a men's clothing store. If Roach had been inventive at all, he would have used the space in the booth for maximum comic advantage. I was thinking of Buster Keaton's sharing a changing booth with a total stranger in a public pool in The Cameraman (1928). Keaton was wise enough to shoot from above, so that we could witness every cramped move. Roach blows it by shooting medium-close on the two faces and cutting back and forth.

The movie does have a small silver lining. About halfway through, and for about five minutes, an actor named Owen Wilson has the spotlight, playing Pam's ultra-perfect ex-boyfriend. Wilson, who was in Bottle Rocket (1996), The Haunting (1999), and Shanghai Noon (2000), just keeps getting better and better. He has an irresistible good-old boy lunkhead kind of charm, and he has a gift for making every line of dialogue his own, as if he's making it up right here and now out of his own backwards little head. This guy is awfully good, and he brings Meet the Parents to life for a moment.

The real problem with Meet the Parents is that we can't empathize with Stiller at all (maybe he should have traded places with Wilson). Anyone in his situation would know better than to do the things he does. He's an annoying moron. When he gets kicked out of the house at the 2/3 mark, we're happy to see him go. Meet the Parents had the potential to be a true nightmare, like Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985) or John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). Those movies made us feel uneasy and gave us leave to laugh about it. Meet the Parents takes an uneasy situation and tries to make it go down smoothly. And It just gets stuck.

DVD Details: Universal has released a new version of this horrible movie just in time to help hype the unwanted sequel Meet the Fockers. The new disc comes with over 35 never-before-seen outtakes, a deleted scene of Robert De Niro singing "Love is in the Air" during the wedding, featurettes, a profile of director Roach, and an audio commentary track.

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