Director Jay Roach has only taken four years to make his first four films, and a thematic pattern has already emerged. Two of those movies featured Mike Myers as Austin Powers. One was about the residents of a small town called “Mystery, Alaska”. What do these characters have in common with Roach’s latest hero, Greg Focker?
Greg (Ben Stiller), a male nurse, is in love with Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo). He’s all set to propose marriage until he learns the fiancée of Pam’s sister asked her father for permission first. His first mistake is to postpone his proposal until he and Pam fly to Chicago to meet her parents. It won’t be his last.
Greg screws up almost from the moment he meets Jack (Robert De Niro) and Dina Byrnes (Blythe Danner). Pam told him that her father was a retired florist, but in reality, he was a 34-year veteran CIA analyst and interrogator. No matter how much Greg attempts to suck up, he only digs himself deeper under Jack’s cold, penetrating stare. Hilarity, fire, and literal potty humor ensue.
Playing a likeable but extremely unlucky schlub, Ben Stiller is very Ben Stiller-ish. Like most of his 1970’s contemporaries, Robert De Niro plays off the image provided him by the rest of his career. He’s very Robert De Niro-ish, except for some very strange moments when he’s startlingly Christopher Walken-ish.
What saves the movie from remaining an exercise in self-parody for all involved is director Roach’s feel for the material. Greg gets the same lesson as agent Powers and a group of Alaskan amateur hockey players: until you discard the false image you project to yourself and those around you, you’re only going to fail. If you’re honest and stand up for yourself, you might stand a chance of success.
“Meet the Parents” often plays like some semi-sequel to “There’s Something About Mary”, but Ben Stiller gets to be more than a physical and emotional punching bag this time. De Niro doesn’t get off so easy either, as Roach tries to achieve some kind of balance. Don’t get me wrong, slapstick and potty humor are great, but as “South Park” has proven and Roach has demonstrated, they’ll go much further with a little heart and brains behind them.