The scenario is as follows: girl and boy are engaged; girl takes boy to meet her family; boy doesn’t put his best foot forward. Adoring fans of this premise are probably unaware that before Jay Roach’s Meet the Parents (2000), there was the original “Meet the Parents” directed and co-written by Greg Glienna. Shot in 1991 and released the following year, Glienna’s film accompanies a newly engaged couple en route to the wife-to-be’s house. They stop for gas and the gas station attendant (James Vincent) enlightens the man (John Dacosse) with a cautionary tale about another couple who met disaster when they went to visit the woman’s family. This story is what comprises the bulk of Glienna’s film.
Greg (Glienna) and his fiancée Pam (Jacqueline Cahill) spend a weekend with her family. Despite Greg’s display of ill-learned social etiquette, Pam’s parents Irv and Kay Burns (Dick Galloway and Carol Wayland) quickly forgive and forget. Unfortunately, mishap after mishap follows and snowballs into a shocking week’s end. Filmed on 16mm, lit to resemble early 90s Folgers commercials, and touched with an ominous atmosphere, “Meet the Parents” incorporates dramatic irony and quirks of human behavior to craft an example of a boyfriend’s worst nightmare come true. Knowing that Glienna’s film came first, it is incredibly tempting to deem it superior to its narrative clone, but it’s not about whether the remake or the original is better. Alterations in tone, characters, and plot details result in an experience similar to peering at the same house from opposite yards. In Roach’s “Parents,” Ben Stiller’s Greg is spastic and not entirely sympathetic; in its predecessor, Greg is mostly cool-headed but a bit of a klutz. A significant characterization difference between the two sets of parents concerns why there is tension between the father and the soon to be son-in-law. Robert DeNiro’s Jack Byrnes is very protective over his daughter and maintains the belief that no man is good enough for her. He intimidates from the first minute and every word or movement from Ben Stiller is potentially a strike against him. In contrast, Dick Galloway’s Irv Burns does not judge, does not hate until he has a reason to think his daughter could not have picked a more incompetent man to marry.
Indeed, Greg demonstrates clumsiness (breaking a victrola handle, the roast beef incident, the fishing rod accident), but it isn’t his fault. Pam tells him to be himself; thus, instead of “yes, no, please,” and “thank you,” Greg (unknowingly) gets himself into the kind of trouble that could happen to anyone meeting their significant other’s family for the first time. He isn’t a bad person. If he must be accused of anything, you could say that he suffers from a dollop of aloofness. For instance, it doesn’t occur to Greg not to touch anything if he can help it. He could just look at the victrola. Why try to turn the handle? When he unintentionally spills some wine onto the roast beef, he tries to help clean by tilting up the plate and dinner is cut short. Pam’s parents do their best not to get too upset and were it not for her sister Fay’s (Mary Ruth Clarke) repeated attempts at sabotage, Greg might actually make an agreeable impression on the parents.
Glienna’s film channels conventions of urban legend story-telling and dark comedy; Roach’s film abandons the soul of his “credited” inspiration for a straightforward slapstick affair. Their stories are essentially the same but they’re different films. If your curiosity is piqued, meet the filmmakers and learn more about their “Meet the Parents” and how it became another “Meet the Parents.”