This review was corrected on Oct. 1, 2000.
Expand to feature length the classic sequence in “Annie Hall” in which Woody Allen visits Diane Keaton’s weird Wisconsin family and you have “Meet the Parents,” a flat-out hilarious mainstream comedy. For a major studio film, you might have to go back to “There’s Something About Mary” to surpass the number of yucks triggered by this broad but not dumbed-down Universal/DreamWorks co-venture. With audiences so bereft of anything remotely satisfying of late, this adult-slanted but universally accessible Oct. 6 release will be a tonic at the B.O. through the fall season.
Widening his range from the gag-oriented antics of the two “Austin Powers” installments, director Jay Roach reveals a talent for more character-centered work here while also demonstrating outstanding timing and the ability to sustain a comic narrative at feature length. Of course, it helps to have a clever script that continues to wring surprises from a simple basic premise, as well as actors like Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller, who can milk their characters’ growing mutual animosity for all it’s worth.
The history of comedy is loaded with stories of earnest young men who need to prove their worth to prospective wives or parents-in-law. “Meet the Parents” actually has its genesis in one of them, a short film by comedian Greg Glienna, who shares story credit with Mary Ruth Clarke. In the yarn as developed by scripters Jim Herzfeld (“Meet the Deedles,” “Tapeheads”) and John Hamburg (“Safe Men”), Greg Focker (Stiller) systematically proves he’s not worthy to wed the lovely Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), with the latter’s intimidating CIA vet father Jack (De Niro) giving the young man all the rope he needs to hang himself. Pic pivots on a clash of cultures and class that is rigged against the interloper from the outset, and the accumulation of disasters and humiliations instigated and suffered by the sincere suitor is accompanied by a direct escalation in hilarity.
The laughs start even with the joint studio logos, as Randy Newman’s song “A Fool in Love” comments wittily on their respective motifs before Chicago elementary school teacher Pam takes her male hospital nurse b.f. Greg to Long Island to meet her folks for the first time. Occasion is the abruptly announced marriage of her sister Debbie (Nicole DeHuff), although Greg plans to use the trip to propose to Pam, who has evidently taken several previous gentlemen home in the past.
Although Pam’s mom Dina (Blythe Danner) is as outwardly warm and welcoming as her dad is imposing and overbearing, the whole package is threatening to the well-intentioned Greg: The Byrneses are polished and poised while he’s grubby and shuffling; they’re accomplished and well off while he unambitiously stopped short of becoming a doctor; they’re old guard while he’s a wannabe; and, not incidentally, they’re WASPs while he’s Jewish.
The religious distinction is only made once, in an uproarious scene in which, at their first dinner together, Dad asks Greg to say grace and the latter, caught utterly off guard, sputters along until finally lapsing into banal lyrics from the “Godspell” song “Day by Day.” But the fact that Greg’s religion is specified adds an unexpected dimension: It not only sparks extra belly laughs, as when Pam’s Mr. Perfect ex-b.f. (Owen Wilson) explains that he took up carpentry because he considers Jesus an excellent role model, but places “Meet the Parents” explicitly in the context of the literature of the outsider Jew up against the WASP establishment; Philip Roth fans take note.
Initially deferential and self-emasculating in the face of Jack’s firmly expressed opinions and authoritative manner, Focker, whose name his hosts pronounce with assorted lewd variations during the course of the weekend, digs himself into an impossible hole by shooting a champagne cork straight at the urn holding the remains of Jack’s beloved mother, sending the ashes crashing to the floor and providing Jack’s equally adored Himalayan cat a new source of Kitty Litter.
After Jack makes Greg take a latenight polygraph test “just for fun,” Pam reveals that dad actually isn’t in the flower business, as alleged, but has spent 34 years in psychological profiling with the CIA. “He’s a human lie detector,” she says, letting Greg know that he’s not going to be able to put anything over on her father.
Disaster piles upon disaster as Greg is effortlessly put in his place by Debbie’s medically eminent father and fiance, injures the bride-to-be in a fiercely competitive water volleyball game, floods the backyard wedding site with sewage by flushing a toilet he’s been told not to touch, lets Jack’s precious cat outside and nearly destroys the house trying to retrieve it. Greg is finally kicked out of the house an hour into the picture, leaving the young man to wonder if he really is as big a schnook as he’s seemed for the past two days, and Jack to decide whether he’s an impossibly overprotective father.
Having definitively established his credentials as a comic actor (and marked a B.O. high) in “Analyze This” last year, De Niro hits the bull’s eye here as a cagey and quirky hardcase who lets nothing slip through his naturally suspicious mind and sets fatal mindgame traps for “opponents” such as Greg as a matter of course. Although De Niro is not the first actor that comes to mind to play a WASPy patriarch, actor socks over his characterization of military man with an unerring b.s. detector via an amazing array of condescending and critical facial expressions and twists of phrase.
On more familiar ground is Stiller, whose performance constitutes a virtual catalog of the varieties of shmuckdom and consequent embarrassment. Thesp puts across his numerous physical comedy scenes in good fashion and has his big moment in an airport scene where, returning to Chicago with his tail between his legs, he’s humiliated to the breaking point by a schoolmarmish attendant (Kali Rocha).
Polo (a regular on TV’s “Felicity”) is winsomely energetic as the young lady at the center of the tug-of-war, Danner straightforwardly conveys suburban comfort and strong spousal support, and Owen Wilson keenly underplays the Aryan-American god with whom Pam previously shared an outstanding physical relationship, much to Greg’s consternation. Only spot where script misses a beat is in the character of Pam’s pothead brother, who serves a minimal function and seems like a chip off the “American Beauty” block of father-dominated weirdos.
Directed by Roach with real comic verve and alertness to the humorous possibilities in every situation, pic verily races along without ever seeming forced or losing steam. Craft contributions are spot-on down the line.