Though Robert DeNiro’s is the biggest name associated with Meet the Parents, the smartest thing the film’s creators did was snare Ben Stiller to play opposite him. As Greg Focker, the anxious boyfriend who’s scheduled to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time on the occasion of her sister’s wedding, Stiller draws on the familiar traits that have made him a semi-star. I can’t think of an actor who’s better at not quite saying his lines, stumbling and fumbling while desperately trying to make a good impression. And the stern, steely impassiveness DeNiro brings to the girlfriend’s father — he’s a former psychological profiler for the CIA — gives Stiller plenty to be nervous about.
But it’s more than Stiller’s jitters that make him perfect for the role. According to reports in the trade press, the producers once sought Jim Carrey for the lead role, and the script is full of slapsticky, Farrelly-esque moments that you know Carrey would have knocked out of the park. (He probably would have handled them better than Stiller, in fact, though Stiller knows how to make his own ungainliness part of the joke.) But if the uneasiness of meeting your potential in-laws for the first time — Greg plans to propose at the end of the weekend — furnishes enough stomach-churning dread to set the farce in motion, the parts of the film that deal with Stiller’s (and his character’s) Jewishness are the only moments that come remotely close to drawing blood. That Greg is uncomfortable because he’s meeting his girlfriend’s parents is purely prosaic; that he’s uncomfortable because he’s a Jew being introduced into an enclave of WASP-ness is an entirely different story. (I don’t know for sure that the character’s religion wasn’t an issue in the script before Stiller signed on, but it certainly seems to be a new addition to the little-seen 1992 Emo Phillips vehicle from which Parents was remade.)
Greg’s Jewishness is hardly mentioned in the script; the only time it’s explicit is when girlfriend Pam (Teri Polo) introduces him to her ex-fiancé Kevin (Owen Wilson). Kevin is, of course, perfect: blond, beaming and a stock-market millionaire to boot. And, as if that weren’t enough, he’s an expert woodworker. (He’s carved an altar for the bride and groom out of a single piece of wood.) The inspiration for his carpentry? Why, Jesus, of course. He beams, “What better example is there?” “Kevin,” Pam interjects nervously, “Greg is Jewish.” Still beaming, he responds, “So was Christ.”
But as with Annie Hall, which opens with Groucho Marx’s joke about how he wouldn’t want to belong to any club which would have him as a member, the specter of anti-Semitism subliminally informs the whole movie. (Marx’s famous line isn’t just self-deprecating; in the 1930s, most exclusive clubs barred their doors to Jews.) Greg’s surname — Focker — becomes an object of much sniggering in the Byrnes household. When he first arrives, Jack (DeNiro) and wife Dina (Blythe Danner) make an elaborate show of learning how to pronounce it, as if it weren’t self-evident; it’s a scene that would make a lot more sense if his name were, say, Kotlowitz. Or take the assaults on Greg’s masculinity, most stemming from the fact that he’s a male nurse and both Pam’s brother and her brother-in-law are MDs.
Meet the Parents is hardly a morality play. Any implication that Greg’s Jewishness is at the heart of his unease is carefully buried under layers of poop jokes and sight gags (like having Stiller turn up in a floral-patterned Speedo). But if I dwell on what might seem like a minor aspect of the movie as a whole, it’s because the rest of the thing is so manifestly uninteresting. It’s amusing to see DeNiro and Danner satirize themselves, especially the latter, who takes her New England earth mother persona to absurd lengths; at one point, she actually refers to appetizers as “hot poo-poos.” And as the humorless, paranoid Jack, DeNiro is Travis Bickle as patriarch; from the instant Greg steps into the house, Jack’s on the hunt for signs that Greg isn’t good enough for his little girl.
But director Jay Roach, whose previous credits include both Austin Powers movies and Mystery, Alaska, is remarkably lead-footed. When Greg finds himself hooked up to the polygraph machine Jack has hidden in a back room, the scene falls flat because Roach lets the pace flag enough for us to ponder the sheer unlikeliness of the situation. And without the kind of road map to visual style dictated by the world of Austin Powers, Roach saddles the movie with a grayish, undistinctive look, which only emphasizes his lackluster sense of timing. It’s like watching a screwball comedy through frosted glass.
It’s hard to know whether Meet the Parents is a potentially good movie sabotaged by flat direction, or an unexceptional movie elevated by Stiller’s performance. (Though DeNiro may have the career advantage, Stiller’s the one earning his paycheck.) But the sloppiness with which the movie’s assembled — a security-camera gag which is practically the first to be set up doesn’t pay off until after the movie’s basically over — makes me suspect that the depth Stiller brings to the picture is entirely accidental.
When Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer meets Annie’s parents, he has a brief vision of himself at the dinner table clad in full Hasidic get-up, as if it’s become a secret he can no longer hide. Meet the Parents doesn’t have anything remotely approaching that scene (or its tangible self-loathing), but with Stiller’s tense, bone-deep anxiety you don’t need it. He doesn’t bring enough to the picture to save it, but he gives you something to cling to while you’re weathering the storm.