In the wake of another summer of schlocky, raunchy comedies that saw Scary Movie hit box office pay dirt and Me, Myself and Irene stumble, Meet the Parents comes as a surprising, pleasant change of pace.
Director Jay Roach, who helmed both Austin Powers adventures, at times covers some of the same raunchy territory. But in a nice twist, Meet the Parents steers back toward more good-natured (if somewhat predictable) humor and through it all Roach shows he has a heart for his main characters.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
PG-13 for crude humor, language
The movie takes its time setting up the characters and the situations. Greg Focker (Ben Stiller, There’s Something About Mary, Keeping the Faith) flies off to New York with his girlfriend, Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo, from TV’s Felicity and Sports Night) to visit her parents and, he hopes, get their blessing for marriage.
Of course, nothing will come easily when the father to impress is played by Robert De Niro. He seems at ease playing Jack Byrnes, a retired dealer in rare flowers, but his history of playing heavies in movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull also lends credibility to the father’s “double life”.
Further aggravating the situation, the two are polar opposites when it comes to pets. Jack is a cat person (with a “trained” cat, Mr. Jinx) and Greg is a dog person. Trying to reconcile the two proves to be no small feat. As Jack says, “Cats make you work for their affection, they don’t sell out like dogs.”
The setup is well done as the awkwardness and tension of that first parental meeting is played out. At first, things are so awkward and the humor so sluggish that the direction of the movie comes into question.
Just relax; everything falls apart nicely.
Fish Out of Water
Greg is the quintessential Average Joe; he’s smart and has a good job (male nurse), he’s sensitive, and he’s not terribly coordinated, especially when it comes to playing sports or climbing rooftops.
There’s something about Ben Stiller that makes him immediately likeable. He creates extremely sympathetic characters, and you want to see him win. The movie uses this to tremendous effect as it piles on the insults, physical harm, and other embarrassments. Watching Stiller, the de facto poster boy for today’s emasculated society, go through the wringer is almost like therapy for the modern average male.
The family Greg wants to marry into is tight-knit and loving, only helping to make him feel all the more like an outsider. There’s also a bit of a class war to deal with as Greg faces the daunting challenge of impressing his girlfriend’s wealthy and talented social circles on their home turf, Oyster Bay, Long Island.
For example, Pam’s ex-fiancée, Kevin Rawley (Owen Wilson, Shanghai Noon, Armageddon), is the quintessential Golden Boy. He’s so perfect he’d make Martha Stewart blush with envy.
Kevin’s house is decorated with pictures of him and Pam together in their glory days: Swimming in the tropics, skiing, horseback riding, and even skydiving. He’s also a master craftsman, an artist at carving wood into beautiful objects, and he’s a wealthy, sensitive guy. In short, he’s every Ordinary Joe’s worst nightmare.
Two Hearts Beat as One
Taking a cue from Murphy’s Law, the story delights in seeing Greg suffer through everything that could possibly go wrong on a simple weekend trip. From water volleyball to a house afire, opportunities for slapstick are to be found at every turn.
But, after Greg paints himself into one outrageous corner after another (mostly because of his own good intentions), the movie finds its way back to matters of the heart. Too often romantic comedies turn sappy and pull on the heartstrings, but Meet the Parents manages to find a satisfying balance between heart and humor.
After a slow and (intentionally) awkward setup, the laughs start to flow more freely and the pace builds to a crescendo of hearty laughs. There are plenty of comedic set pieces along the way and most of the jokes work quite well, covering the gamut from milking cats on a Motown farm to what could be considered the last word on “potty humor”.
Thanks to smart casting and a desire to please as large an audience as possible, Meet the Parents hits enough laugh buttons to be considered a visit worth making.