Meet the Fockers

In the grand tradition of movie sequels, “Meet the Fockers” is a little coarser, a little more desperate and a lot less funny than its predecessor. But then it also has Dustin Hoffman, who single-handedly saves the day with a performance as single-mindedly, energetically funny as anything he’s ever done.

In the world of the movie, it’s only been two years since 2000’s “Meet the Parents,” which ended with Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Ben Stiller) getting the OK to marry his sweetheart Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) from her accommodating mother Dina (Blythe Danner) and her strict, ex-CIA father Jack (Robert De Niro). Due to Greg’s apprehension about letting the Byrneses meet his own parents, the wedding has been delayed many times. But now the moment of truth has arrived, and Greg and the Byrneses are at last heading to Florida to meet the Fockers.

Greg’s parents, as you have heard, are played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. You probably can’t imagine a better pair to play a couple of retired liberal Jews in South Florida, can you? And they are fantastic, both of them, full of quirks and affable zaniness. The Fockers are a touch-feely couple, still quite frisky (she’s a sex therapist specializing in senior citizens; he’s a happy house husband) and absolute admirers of their mediocre son. They are the antithesis of the straitlaced Byrneses (well, of Jack, anyway; Dina is still a bit of a cipher).

So we’ve added Hoffman and Streisand to the already-perfect mix of Ben Stiller as a frustrated, befuddled straightman and Robert De Niro as an intimidating future father-in-law; the original director (Jay Roach) and writers (John Hamburg and James Herzfeld) are back; we would seem to have all the elements in place for a sequel worthy of the original. So what went wrong?

In my opinion, what made the first film work was Stiller’s persona as the hapless, wry loser, a character that has since been used in too many films but that in 2000 was still relatively fresh. In “Meet the Parents,” someone — usually Robert De Niro — would say or do something insane and get a laugh, and then Stiller would top off the laugh with a stammering, deadpan reaction. (For example, Jack reads a bizarre poem about his dead, cancer-ridden mother, and Greg responds, “That was so beautiful, and yet, had so much information.”)

Much of that attitude is gone in the sequel; indeed, Greg is almost relegated to a supporting-cast position in favor of the De Niro/Hoffman dynamic. That pair certainly has a lot going for it — even with only average-to-decent material to work with, De Niro and Hoffman have magnetism and a commitment to their work that is exciting to watch — but it isn’t where the film’s greatest assets lie. Stiller ought to be one of the movie’s best weapons, but he has far fewer amusing things to say this time than he did the first time around.

Instead, we get a lot of tired gags like people falling down, someone being drugged with truth serum, and a dog that humps everything. Many lines exist just to remind us that yes, his name is still Gaylord Focker, and yes, he’s still a male nurse. (In case you forgot.) Jokes are done, redone and overdone, to the point that you notice the movie TRYING to be funny more than you notice it actually BEING funny. There are approximately 1,000 lines in which the amusing part is supposed to be the word “Focker,” and dozens upon dozens of boob jokes. There’s even a 1-year-old baby to whom Greg accidentally teaches a swear word — funny a couple times, but not when the baby keeps saying it OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Give it a rest, Fockers.

All of this is to explain why the film isn’t as good as its predecessor, or even as good as a sequel ought to be. It is still passably entertaining, however, due in large part to Hoffman’s loosey-goosey performance as Bernie Focker. Many of his lines sound ad-libbed; his persona is that of a man who does and says whatever comes into his mind, a well-meaning but embarrassing aging hippie. The film forgets its solid original premises and becomes feebly desperate at times, but Hoffman is always there to wring a laugh out of some hoary joke or some contrived situation. The man is a national treasure, I tell you.

B- (1 hr., 53 min.; PG-13, scattered profanity, a lot of vulgarity, brief partial nudity, sexual innuendo.)