Meet the Fockers

"I didn't raise you to be a so-so lover."

When a mega-hit on the scale of Meet the Parents ($166 million domestic and vast popularity on home video) spawns a sequel, certain expectations come along for the ride. It is mandatory, for example, to do bigger-louder-more, to top the original in every way imaginable, to either expand the original conceit or just turn up the volume. That said, the sequel may not take any significant risks for fear of disappointing fans of the predecessor — and when filmmakers do dare to do something risky and borderline courageous, they are punished for it (see The Matrix Reloaded). So unless the entire saga is based on something else — novels, perhaps, or comic books — hopes of any sort of integrity from a big-time Hollywood sequel are likely to be cruelly dashed.

And so it is with Meet the Fockers, which coasts on considerable star power to make us laugh with some consistency but never approaches the level of fearless comic abandon that made the first film so popular. Director Jay Roach, also responsible for the consistently brilliant Austin Powers films, apparently abandoned his formidable comic instincts for rampant, careless, quick-buck “filmmaking,” with all pretense of cleverness tossed out in favor of “giving the people what they want.” It’s a shame. Yet the movie still works, in a mostly inadequate, half-assed way, milking every last laugh out of the unremarkable high concept of having the arch-conservative Byrnes family, headed once again by Blythe Danner and Robert De Niro spend the weekend with the decidedly bohemian Fockers, played by none other than Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. It’s easy to see what attracted heavy-hitters Hoffman and Streisand to this project, as both look like they’re having the most fun since Tootsie and Yentl, respectively, and the characters of Bernie and Roz Focker might just give the two of them new household names.

Bernie is a lawyer who retired to become a house-husband; Rox is a sex therapist specializing in senior sexuality. Both of these occupations are, of course, repugnant to retired CIA macho-man Jack Byrnes, who dreads the notion of his daughter (Teri Polo) marrying the offspring of such an unrepentantly untraditional tribe. This is potentially very funny, but the humor remains on a surface level, scenes never reaching the kind of comic fever pitch that might have taken this over the top. This kind of sitcom premise is dependent on momentum, and Meet the Parents worked because it was constantly building, going to ridiculous lengths to humiliate its protagonist. Comedies of embarrassment are rarely amusing, but that one worked because it went so much farther than anyone expected, and at the end still managed to convince us that everything was okay.

This one, though, plays more like a variety show than as a single comedic juggernaut. Individual scenes are amusing on their own — I loved the exchanges between De Niro and Ben Stiller in the former’s absurd RV, culminating in “Only the captain may honk the horn;” I was also fond of Stiller being left alone with Jack’s precious grandson, who is being raised on an exaggerated version of the Ferber method — but they don’t connect, or build into something bigger. It seems to have been written not as a screenplay but as a series of ideas, including as many bits that the writers found funny as possible. Some of them are indeed funny, but the experience is lame.

Streisand is the film’s greatest asset, pulling off the Jewish mother act to a T and convincingly supplementing it with a dose of Bohemian tolerance. Watching her conduct a senior sexuality seminar, complete with “liberator pads” is inexplicably amusing, and her dinner table scenes come closest to emulating the sort of comic momentum I referred to earlier. Hoffman’s performance is more conventional, and he’s done plenty of comedy before, but his character is touching in the way his hippie innocence mixes with a fierce protectiveness and even somewhat of a competitive drive.

As for the franchise stalwarts, De Niro and Stiller are pretty much on autopilot at this point — nothing new is required of them, and they could play these parts in their sleep. Danner and Polo are good sports and effective foils for their wackier counterparts (and Polo desperately needs this franchise to keep her career afloat). But Meet the Fockers is a major, if predictable, disappointment, taking a promising series and sacrificing it to the Gods of commercial desperation. I’m not much looking forward to a third installment.

-- Eugene Novikov

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