Meet the Parents

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“Meet the Parents” would be nothing without Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller. The script is funny, and the supporting cast does its job — it supports, no more, no less — but it’s De Niro and Stiller who make it the unceasingly entertaining treat that it is.

Beginning with a song by the incomparable Randy Newman (has any film he’s scored NOT been improved by his contributions?) that features the words, “Show me a man who’s gentle and kind/And I’ll show you a loser,” “Meet the Parents” is a one-disaster-after-another kind of comedy, but it avoids going over the top or descending into gross-out humor. (Surprising, since it was directed by Jay Roach, who also helmed both “Austin Powers” films.)

Ben Stiller plays Greg, a male nurse who wants to marry the winsome Pam (Teri Polo). Before he can pop the question, though, he learns that her sister, Debbie (Nicole DeHuff), has just gotten engaged — but only because her boyfriend, Bob (Tom McCarthy), asked her father’s permission first.

Greg and Pam fly to New York state for the wedding, giving Greg what he hopes will be the perfect opportunity to ask Dad for his daughter’s hand. Dad, however, is Robert De Niro.

That’s the film’s first great triumph, casting De Niro as Pam’s father, Jack Byrnes. The film is well-aware that the audience associates De Niro with psychopaths and gangsters, and it lets that be a wonderful inside joke: Imagine walking up to your girlfriend’s house to meet her father and finding out that it’s Travis Bickle/Vito Corleone/Max Cady/Jake LaMotta. He doesn’t even have to say anything; we already KNOW who this guy is.

The role is perfectly suited for De Niro, too, as it allows him to be what we expect him to be: a little crazy, and a little violent. But it’s morphed into a domestic setting, where he’s crazy about his precious little girl (and his pet cat, who causes no end of trouble), and where his violence is expressed verbally. There’s no “You talkin’ to me?” in his interrogations of Greg, but there might as well be. The sentiment is the same, and it’s hilarious to watch it in a situation that we know will lead to comedy, not bloodshed.

Another great joke the film gives us is Greg’s last name: Focker. There is much sublime pleasure in hearing De Niro say it in contexts like, “Are you a pothead, Focker?” and “Let’s see some defense, Focker!” (There’s also a wonderful line about what Pam’s full name will be if they get married: Pamela Martha Focker. Say it out loud, and then picture De Niro saying it, the same way he’s said it hundreds of times in other movies.)

Stiller is brilliant as the flustered-and-getting-worse Greg. He restrains himself enough to make it a slow boil, never erupting until near the end, when he takes it all out on a stewardess who deserves it. You can picture Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler going bug-eyed and freaking out when Greg accidentally sets the backyard on fire, and while it might be good for a quick laugh, it couldn’t compare with Stiller’s controlled, masterful performance.

About two-thirds of the way into the movie, things slow down a bit. It’s when everything bad that could happen has happened, and Greg has to figure out how to still marry Pam. Fortunately, things pick up again quickly with the aforementioned airport sequence.

The sentiment is kept to a minimum — just enough to make it genuinely sweet the way things fall into place. And who cares if Greg and Pam get together — we’re just glad to see Greg and Jack work things out.

A- (; PG-13, scattered profanities, brief mild sexuality, some other minor vulgarity.)

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