Loco Parentis

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The saddest moment in any American film this year is a scene where Robert De Niro, Blythe Danner, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand sit at a table. These are phenomenally talented people who've made substantial contributions over the years to the pleasure and edification of audiences in all realms.

Why aren't they in a Tennessee Williams play?

Why aren't they in a revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives"?

Why isn't Steven Spielberg directing them; why didn't Robert Towne write their lines?

And, most tragic of all: Why are they in something called "Meet the Fockers"?

Don't get me wrong. "Meet the Fockers" isn't a disgrace, a travesty, an abomination. But it's nothing that merits the spectacular talents of its cast and, given the intermittence of its humor and its reliance on bad puns and gross physical comedy, it would have worked just as well with television-scale stars: "Meet the Fockers," starring Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Tony Danza and Pam Dawber. Just as good, and what a comeback vehicle for Dawber as the wacky Roz!

Oh, well. The movie that's up there does offer something I never thought I'd see: Barbra Streisand playing touch football.

As viewers of the predecessor film, "Meet the Parents," also directed by Jay Roach and also starring De Niro and Danner and of course Ben Stiller, already know, the story is designed as an ordeal by older generation. In the first one, poor Greg Focker (Stiller), a male nurse, was living with, engaged to and hopelessly in love with Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo). But in order to marry her, he had to pass muster with her family, mainly her dad, Jack (De Niro), an obsessive control-freak ex-CIA officer. De Niro's macho blusterings played against Stiller's diffidence to great comic effect and box office.

This variant simply widens the concept. It contrives to take the Byrnes family with Stiller's Greg to Florida to meet Greg's parents, Hoffman and Streisand. It explores similar comic contrasts, juxtaposing the already established rigidity of De Niro's Jack against the hippie-dippie, loosey-goosey casualness of the senior Fockers.

It's really good to see Streisand just having fun. She always had deft comic timing and an ability to send herself up, and as earthy Roz, a sex therapist for the elderly, she's one of the best things in the film. I wish I could say the same for Hoffman, but as Bernie, a former lawyer who years ago became a househusband, he seems to me to be slightly discordant with the others. Though the character calls for relaxation, underneath his performance there's a manic edge, and since De Niro also has a manic edge, the contrast between them doesn't quite work, tipping the movie endlessly toward shrillness.

Danner, the lesser light, isn't given enough to do, and that's a shame. As for Stiller, he's quite good. His shtick is his seeming rationality in the face of the escalating weirdness. He tries to remain calm, nonconfrontational, logical, even reasonable as either crazed Jack or smarmy Bernie goes off on one weird tangent or another. Polo hardly registers.

But still . . . better writers, better director, some mad genius, some daring, and this movie might have been a contender instead of a negligible product content to stoop for the easy laughs and the easy money. We get endless riffs on the suggestiveness of the name "Focker," yet more jokes on a pampered cat that has been trained to flush the toilet, a little dog that has a libido the size of all outdoors. There's a random baby in the group, lamely justified as the son of a Byrnes child currently out of the country, and although the kid (played by twins Spencer and Bradley Pickren) is adorable, he's really there only to set up one mildly comic sequence.

Lots of things don't work. The Fockers' insistence on humiliating their son before his soon-to-be parents-in-law goes on too long and becomes excruciating, though the circumcision product in the fondue was a funny gag. Jack Byrnes's over-engineered recreational vehicle: not funny. Not even a little. Then there's a potential comic blockbuster of a scene in which Greg, injected with truth serum by the nasty Jack, bumbles to the stage at an engagement party and speaks nothing but the truth. Again, it's slightly funny, but the potential here, like the potential of the film, is never approached. The whole sequence is anticlimactic.

In "Meet the Fockers," the cast is too good for the script and the script is too good for the director and the director is too good for the horny dog jokes.

Meet the Fockers (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude sexual humor and drug references.

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