A crafty cat manages to flush a rat-sized dog down the toilet of an RV in "Meet the Fockers," a gag that literally sums up the pervasive below-the-belt humor in this fitfully funny but always crude sequel to the much more amusing "Meet the Parents." The gap between the first and second installments isn't as gaping as with, for instance, "Analyze This" and "Analyze That," but the laughs "Fockers" generates are the type you feel embarrassed about almost immediately afterward. Nonetheless, major star power, lack of alternative strong comedies in the holiday marketplace and fond memories of the original, which raked in $330 million worldwide (half of it overseas), assure strong returns for this Universal/DreamWorks hookup.

A crafty cat manages to flush a rat-sized dog down the toilet of an RV in “Meet the Fockers,” a gag that literally sums up the pervasive below-the-belt humor in this fitfully funny but always crude sequel to the much more amusing “Meet the Parents.” The gap between the first and second installments isn’t as gaping as with, for instance, “Analyze This” and “Analyze That,” but the laughs “Fockers” generates are the type you feel embarrassed about almost immediately afterward. Nonetheless, major star power, lack of alternative strong comedies in the holiday marketplace and fond memories of the original, which raked in $330 million worldwide (half of it overseas), assure strong returns for this Universal/DreamWorks hookup.

Far more than the 2000 original, which was mostly implicit in its ethnic implications, “Fockers” is explicit about touchy-feely, liberal and liberated Jews trying to mellow out uptight, conservative and repressed WASPs (this is such a shopworn notion by now that a much more novel comedy could be wrung out of the reverse dynamic).

When its attention is not fixated in the general vicinity of the groin, which is seldom, pic trades on the tireless efforts of the ceaselessly horny Fockers, played by the boundlessly enthusiastic Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, to remove the figurative broom from the posterior of their son’s future in-laws, a former CIA op and proper old-school wife portrayed by Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner.

Tenor of the humor closely matches the most vulgar moments of Jay Roach’s third and presumably final “Austin Powers” entry; it’s curious, in fact, how both Roach franchises have declined in virtually identical ways, only this time in one step rather than two.

When the engaged Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) arrive on Long Island to join Pam’s parents for a journey to Florida to finally meet Greg’s folks, the Byrnes — Jack (De Niro) and Dina (Danner) — surprise them with the announcement that they’ll be driving down to Florida in Jack’s giant new RV, partly to accommodate his grandson Little Jack, for whom he’s caring.

Once the group arrives at the paradisiacal Focker Isle, the comic culture clash starts in earnest. Like rich leftover hippies without a care in the world, Bernie and Roz Focker (Hoffman and Streisand) live in a dreamy, breezy house where Roz conducts sex-for-seniors exercise classes. Natch, everyone tries to be on their best behavior at the outset, but Bernie’s instantly familiar physicality and uncensored ways immediately set Jack’s jaw on edge, confirming Greg’s worst fears about what’s in store.

Returning screenwriters Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg clearly spent most of their time engineering bumps in the road that would provide an abundance of embarrassment, awkwardness and conflict. For starters, a hot Latin lady (Alanna Ubach), formerly the Fockers’ maid, is presented as the woman to whom the teenage Greg lost his virginity, with a possible illegitimate son the result. None too pleased about this, Pam informs Greg that she’s pregnant, a fact that must be kept from Jack at all costs — an unlikely proposition given the Fockers’ utter inability to keep their mouths shut on any subject.

Then there’s the matter of Little Jack (played by beautiful blond twins Spencer and Bradley Pickren), who’s too young to talk but whom the strict and militaristic Jack is treating like a little man. One lowball comic highlight is Greg’s brief baby-sitting stint, which he hopes will convince Jack he’s fit to be a father. When all else fails, however, which is not infrequently, Roach falls back on the age-old adage: “Cut to the kid.”

Still, it’s the relative oldsters who get the lion’s share of the action here, with Stiller and Polo, overpowered in terms of star wattage and opportunities, mostly relegated to second banana status. De Niro’s clenched, suspicious traditionalist was fresher the first time around, but his slow-burn, barely contained reactions to the many things that irritate him still yield some genuine amusement.

Hoffman, however, provides the film with its greatest energy source. Even more than in the recent “I Heart Huckabees,” thesp gives the impression of being in a second adolescence, so frisky, mischievous and physically invigorated is his characterization. Almost continuously, Hoffman pushes beyond the expected with comic provocation that gives pic an extra spark.

Streisand doesn’t go that far but is a pleasure to watch in circumstances that make her appear more relaxed onscreen than she has in the more than 30 years since “What’s Up, Doc?”

Although potent B.O. for “Fockers” may create corporate desire for a third installment, the extent to which the creative fertility level has dropped between entries one and two provides a significant argument for Roach & Co. to retire the Fockers before it’s really too late.

Meet the Fockers

Production

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures presentation of a Tribeca/Everyman Pictures production. Produced by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Jay Roach. Executive producers, Amy Sayres, Nancy Tenenbaum. Co-producer, Jon Poll. Directed by Jay Roach. Screenplay, Jim Herzfeld, John Hamburg, story by Herzfeld, Marc Hyman.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), John Schwartzman; editors, Jon Poll, Lee Haxall; music, Randy Newman; original songs, Newman; production designer, Rusty Smith; art director, Andrew Neskoromny; set designers, Richard F. Mays, Randall Wilkins, William V. Ryder, Kevin Cross; set decorator, Sara Andrews-Ingrassia; costume designer, Carol Ramsey; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Kenneth McLaughlin; supervising sound editor, George Anderson; re-recording mixers, Andy Koyama, Chris Carpenter; associate producer, Larry Stuckey; assistant director, Josh King; second unit director, Poll; second unit camera, Michael Pinkey; casting, Francine Maisler. Reviewed at the National Theater, Los Angeles, Dec. 14, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Jack Byrnes - Robert De Niro Greg Focker - Ben Stiller Bernie Focker - Dustin Hoffman Roz Focker - Barbra Streisand Dina Byrnes - Blythe Danner Pam Byrnes - Teri Polo Officer Le Flore - Tim Blake Nelson Isabel - Alanna Ubach Jorge Villalobos - Ray Santiago Flight Attendant - Kali Rocha Judge Ira - Shelley Berman Kevin Rawley - Owen Wilson Little Jack - Spencer Pickren, Bradley Pickren

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