Chief Justice Mike Jackson reviews the movie that reminds him of his own life...in a Turkish prison.
"I have nipples, Greg. Would you milk me?"
Back in my swinging bachelor days (the five people reading this who know me "in person" can now laugh hysterically), I was forced to meet my future in-laws. At that point, the girl I would marry wasn't even really my girlfriend yet. After our freshman year in college, she had moved back home, and I drove 300 miles to go visit her. When I pulled up at their house, I was wearing battered cut-off shorts, a Hard Rock Café t-shirt, and was driving my pick-up, which was very close to as old as me. Oh, and I had just received my first speeding ticket. Over the course of that weekend, the series of events caused them to like me even less than when they first met me. And the trend continued for the four years we dated…and they didn't even come to our wedding. It wasn't until we had been married for over a year that they finally realized I was around to stay, and warmed up to me. Now we like each other, but it took a long time to get to that point.
Anyway, so now you know what I was thinking when I sat down to watch Meet The Parents, the comedy that was all the rage in 2000 but I shunned up until my wife decreed we were renting it whilst browsing around Blockbuster. Why avoid it? Partly out of stylish disdain for anything that popular, mostly because of the preceding paragraph. Was I right in feeling that way? Did I end up enjoying the movie? Read on, dear readers.
Facts of the Case
Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) is in love with his girlfriend, Pam (Teri Polo). So in love, in fact, that he wants to pop the question, but through a plot contrivance learns that she would appreciate if he asked her father's permission first. (What is this? The friggin' 1950s?) So, off they fly to New York to meet her parents. (As another aside…how is it that a nurse and a schoolteacher have the cash or credit for last-minute plane tickets? I have to check my bank account to see if transportation du jour will be car, bus, or Airwalks.)
At the homestead, Greg meets Jack (Robert De Niro) and Dina (Blythe Danner). From the start things go badly, and proceed to go downhill from there…
$166 million in domestic ticket sales and a perpetual spot toward the top of the DVD sales charts would seem to indicate that either people found Meet The Parents much more entertaining than I did, or it proves the adage that a fool and their money are soon parted. Maybe it's just me, but this movie was painful to watch. It consisted of little more than 107 minutes of the scrotum-in-the-zipper scene from There's Something About Mary, with precious little motivation for the audience to feel sorry for poor Greg Focker. Speaking of that name (say it out loud…it's pronounced just like it's spelled), hearing it said provided me with most of the laughs I had at the movie. That and De Niro's facial expressions. Did I laugh at other things? Sure, but there were precious few of the belly laughs I got just the night before from watching the "Clerks: The Animated Series" disc for the umpteenth time. But to back up for a second, I think I just hit the nail on the head. There's no reason to care about Greg. Even in There's Something About Mary, we got some idea of how pathetic Ted was and at least felt sorry for him. There's no reason to feel sorry for poor Greg. He lies pathologically, I suppose understandably in the face of such persecution, but dishonesty generally brings more pain than comfort. He's too weasely to be all that likeable, and he's too nice a guy for us to hate.
Meet The Parents was directed by Jay Roach, also responsible for the two Austin Powers films and Mystery, Alaska. Prior to his directing career, he served in a variety of other behind-the-camera capacities, such as producer (Blown Away), cinematographer (the short film Sound Of Peace), and second unit "B" camera operator (the Anthony Michael Hall vehicle A Gnome Named Gnorm…I kid you not). I haven't seen Mystery, Alaska, so all I have to judge him on is his Austin Powers work. The first film is a work of genius, but I'd attribute a lot of that to the über talent of Mike Myers' script and incredible performance. The second movie, well, was rather underwhelming. It's like someone copying the painting style of Andy Warhol—gratuitous, pointless, vaguely pretentious, and derivative of something that's already derivative. Compared with the kinetic filmmaking of the Austin Powers movies, Meet The Parents is dull and flat. I haven't seen camera work that rigid since Kevin Smith's Clerks. It takes a premise that, while familiar, is very uninspired. You can just imagine the original script pitch…"This guy goes to his girlfriend's parents' house for the weekend, and everything goes wrong." Zzzz. Not even the talented cast can breathe life into it.
The ubiquitous Ben Stiller should be recognizable to anyone. He has specialized in roles like Greg Focker for most of his career—the straight guy given to bursts of emotion; see Reality Bites (which he directed) or There's Something About Mary for somewhat low-key examples, Happy Gilmore (oh, I long for the days of the good Adam Sandler comedy!) or Mystery Men for extreme ones. I've already complained at length about Greg, so I need not go any further, except to say that Stiller brings nothing new to his on-screen persona.
Robert De Niro…what to say about De Niro. He is one of the greatest actors of our day, and incredibly gifted at comedy when he takes those roles. I'm almost tempted to see The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle just for his performance, but I don't know if my fragile mental health can withstand that kind of torture. The man excels in any type of role, from his serious work with Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver to Casino) to thinking man's action films (Heat, Ronin), from leading roles (on screen for nearly the entire running length of the three-hour Casino) to supporting roles (The Untouchables, Backdraft), from serious (The Deer Hunter) to the absurd (Tarantino's Jackie Brown). His last big comedy was Analyze This, spoofing his mafia boss image. Here he does his best with what is given him, but it's the best part of a mediocre film.
Of the supporting players, the best are Owen Wilson and Teri Polo. Wilson, known for Bottle Rocket and Shanghai Noon, continues his string of daffy guy roles as Greg's girlfriend's former fiancé. He plays the moronic role with a straight face, making everything he says a farce. Teri Polo, as Greg's girlfriend Pam, is not quite the comic foil one would wish for in a comedy, but she is earnest and kind, and it's easy to see why he loves her enough to endure the torture of her family. Besides, I wanted an excuse to say she was on "Sports Night," the incredibly funny pseudo-sitcom created by Aaron Sorkin, better known for A Few Good Men and "The West Wing." If you can ever catch it in reruns on Comedy Central, I would encourage you to watch it (release it on DVD, Disney, and I promise to buy it!).
Well, on to what you came for: the DVD. Meet The Parents is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer throughout is generally okay, though it did seem to contain a bit too much edge enhancement, resulting in a picture that seemed overly harsh and digital rather than smooth and film-like. Colors are reproduced faithfully, and the image is otherwise pleasing. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. I don't believe I noticed the rear channels in use during the entire film, while the LFE channel is used sparingly. This is in all ways a typical, uninspiring comedy soundtrack.
Extras are plentiful. You get two commentary tracks—one with Jay Roach and the editor, the other with De Niro and Stiller, plus Roach. I could not bring myself to listen to them, so I can't judge the quality. My colleague Judge Nicholas Sylvain offers this about the tracks: "Roach does fine in his commentary (much as he was in the Austin Powers track) but as much as I love Robert De Niro, he's a commentary killer. He just isn't very communicative at all, and it just drags BADLY as Ben Stiller valiantly soldiers on regardless. One commentary track would have been quite sufficient." You also get production notes, a Universal "Spotlight On Location" featurette (clocking in at around 25 minutes), the theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound), a handful of deleted scenes, and the always amusing outtakes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I'm wont to say, your mileage may vary. Comedy is hard to distill; what's funny to one person isn't to another. After all, Family Matters was on the air for nine years, and the only laugh I ever got out of Urkel was from Dwight Ewell in Chasing Amy. I don't think I'm alone in my dispassionate dislike of Meet The Parents; this review at Amazon.com may have expressed it best: "If this is funny then I'm dead, because seeing a nice guy just get abused by a bunch of snobby, pretentious, holier than thou schmucks just ain't my cup of tea."
To make matters worse, while I was waiting for my wife to sit down to watch the movie, I made the mistake of watching the trailer. Oh, and a big mistake it was, too. Like far too many trailers, it was a 90 second condensed version of the movie. There wasn't a point in watching any further, because I'd already seen or heard the punchlines to most of the gags. Milking a cat. Check. Lie detector. Check. Setting the lawn on fire. Check. Spiking a volleyball into a woman's face. Check. All that was left was the discovery that poor Greg's legal name is Gaylord Focker. Oh, that's funny…and whoops, I just spoiled it for you, too. Well, maybe I just saved you the $3.69 Blockbuster rental fee, or the $26.99 to buy it.
If you've seen Meet The Parents and liked it more than I did, the extra content makes it a worthy purchase. If you haven't seen it, a rental might be in order, but don't say I didn't warn you if you find it underwhelming. Moviegoers don't always vote with their wallets. Armageddon was unmitigated crap and it made tons of money; Almost Famous was a grand movie loved by the five people who saw it, and it made next to nothing.
One of the next projects on Jay Roach's plate is a live-action adaptation of one of my favorite books, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. After seeing Meet The Parents, I'm almost secretly wishing he can't find financing, Douglas Adams hates his script, and Hugh Laurie turns down the lead role so it doesn't get made. So, Mr. Roach, so long and thanks for all the fish.
Universal is acquitted for a solid DVD presentation. Jay Roach is sentenced to producing a sequel to A Gnome Named Gnorm in hopes that he can develop a finer comedic touch. The cast is released on their own recognizance for previous cinematic good deeds. Court dismissed.
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