MEET THE PARENTS

Directed by Jay Roach

Written by James Herzfeld and John Hamburg

With Ben Stiller, Robert de Niro, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo and Owen Wilson

***1/4



1999 proved to be a banner year for American cinema, with Hollywood producing a surprising number of adventurous films (FIGHT CLUB, THREE KINGS, EYES WIDE SHUT, MAGNOLIA, THE IRON GIANT) and Indiewood holding its own  with BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and BOYS DON'T CRY.  By contrast, this year has been a dismal one for Hollywood and Indiewood alike so far. The biggest exception, Miguel Arteta and Mike White's CHUCK & BUCK, barely broke even, and the best new American film I've seen in 2000, Janie Geiser's THE FOURTH WATCH, is a 9-minute avant-garde short. Given the lack of competition, it's not  much of a compliment to say that MEET THE PARENTS ranks with the best our nation can produce  right now, but it's as underrated as it is popular. Armchair sociology is usually a fools' game, but I'm curious why MEET THE PARENTS has become such a huge hit. Apart from its obvious placement as a PG-13 alternative to the summer raunch of ME, MYSELF & IRENE, ROAD TRIP  & SCARY MOVIE, since its appeal - what I liked most about it, at least - seems distinctly minoritarian. It works equally well on two levels: as a straightforward, rather broad farce and a more subtle reflection on anti-Semitism. James Berardinelli has remarked that "the only chances MEET THE PARENTS takes are safe chances." I disagree:  in the cinematheque of my dreams, it would play on a double bill with Jay Rosenblatt's KING OF THE JEWS, a short examining the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Nurse  Greg Focker (Stiller), whose real first name is Gaylord,  plans to marry Pam (Teri Polo), a blonde schoolteacher. (Yes, the film offers multiple puns on his last name.) The couple lives together in Chicago, but they travel to Long Island for a weekend with her WASPy, upper-middle-class family, in order to participate in Pam's sister's wedding. While there, Greg plans to ask Pam's paranoid father Jack (de Niro) for his daughter's hand in marriage. While Pam's mother Dina (Danner) is relatively nice to him, Jack is suspicious of him from the start. Greg starts off on a bad foot, and he only ends up embarrassing himself further as the film progresses. Furthermore, it becomes obvious that Jack, who's lied about his work as a florist and  subjects Greg to a polygraph test, is borderline psychotic.

I may as well enumerate  MEET THE PARENTS' flaws right off the bat.  AUSTIN POWERS vet Roach shoots it with  a blandly competent style that screams "sitcom," although he may even have less of an eye than the average TV director.  De Niro is mis-cast as an uber-WASP.  (A more Aryan-looking actor, like Nick Nolte, might have been a better choice.) The handful of gags about vomit and shit  feel like obligatory, out-of-place nods to the gross-out zeitgeist.

To be sure, Herzfeld and Hamburg's screenplay, loaded with Rube Goldberg chains of disaster,  is formulaic, but it's executed with enough gusto to seem more classical  than clichéd. Greg is an obvious revision of the character Stiller played in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and although MEET THE PARENTS avoids the Farrelly brothers' crude excesses, it shares their fascination with male embarrassment and anxiety.  For the Farrelly brothers, most of this angst is sexual (or at least physical), while here, it revolves around ethnicity.  Even the film's weaknesses, such as the lack of chemistry between Stiller and Pelo,  contribute to this emphasis, since the portions devoted to Greg's struggle against Jack are far more memorable than the scenes between him and Pam. Humor is notoriously subjective, but I found MEET THE PARENTS more consistently funny than any of the Farrelly brothers' films, possibly because it struck a chord with my own half-Catholic, half-Jewish background, while I don't identify much with their  fratboy sensibility.

Greg's Judaism is only explicitly mentioned a handful of times, most notably when Jack cluelessly expects him to say grace before a meal. (His improvised prayer only baffles the  family.) Anti-Semitism isn't the sole reason for Jack's paranoia, as MEET THE PARENTS  suggests  that he's had something against  every man Pam has dated. Still, it lurks behind all his actions, and as the weekend grows on, his privilege increasingly colors the way he sees Greg. He would probably never use the word "kike," even in  all-WASP company, yet his worldview expects everyone to  be white, Christian and  (at least ) upper-middle-class. The people around him  are even worse.  Pam's ex-boyfriend Kevin (Wilson) blithely assumes that everyone has a huge stock market portfolio, therefore Greg's nursing work must be charity. The film is filled with small touches emphasizing the countless  ways in which Greg doesn't fit into this world and how much Jack and his family assume that he should. Most of these are relatively minor, but they add up to a  whopping dose of alienation.

MEET THE PARENTS is especially canny at showing how prejudiced suspicions of devious behavior can create a vicious circle, contributing to this very behavior. Jack constantly talks about how Greg has to earn the right to a placement in his "circle of trust," yet he initially pretends to be a florist  to cover up his CIA background. Greg's decision not to tell Jack and Dina that he smokes cigarettes  puts  one of these cycles in motion. After Greg makes small talk about Peter, Paul & Mary's "Puff The Magic Dragon" (one of Jack's favorite songs) really being about marijuana, Jack becomes convinced that he  is a closet pothead. Although Jack's son really is one, he lies when his father discovers his pipe, claiming that it belongs to  Greg. Meanwhile, Greg's attempts to satisfy his nicotine fix on the sly make things worse: while smoking on the roof, he accidentally sets a fire in the gutter and a cat wrecks Jack's house after chewing on Greg's supply of Nicorette gum. Bad faith on both sides only leads to more bad faith, lending more fuel to Jack's paranoia and making Greg justifiably paranoid and defensive, especially when the whole family starts joking about his non-existent weed habit . Through the familiar comedic device of spiraling  mishaps and crossed cues, the film  shows how people often use   minorities as scapegoats for vices (including "deviant" sexuality, later on) that exist in their own backyard.

All along the way, I expected MEET THE PARENTS to wind up trivializing these problems with a comforting resolution. Thankfully, this never happens. If the ending is more or less happy,  that's merely because it promises that Greg and Jack's future conflicts  may take place on a more level field. Of course, this open ending paves the way for a sequel, but it's also pretty edgy for a seemingly lightweight Hollywood comedy. Does the audience that's made it the #1 film in North America for the past three weeks like it for the same reasons I do? Or do they prefer the in-law jokes, which hit further from my experience?  The subtext wouldn't matter so much if the comedy didn't work on a surface level - had I found BAMBOOZLED as funny, I would probably have  forgiven most of  its  flaws - but  in the hands of a filmmaker  with an iota of visual style, MEET THE PARENTS could have been one of the year's best.