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A High Mirth Rate

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2000


    Meet The Parents Ben Stiller tries to impress the daunting
De Niro in "Meet the Parents."
(Phillip V. Caruso/Universal)
The bottom line of any comedy has got to be: Is it funny? I mean, if people are laughing, it's a no-brainer, right?

So let's ignore the fact that "Meet the Parents" won't be cited in film classes around the country as one of the great comedies. Let's overlook its vision of WASPness, which would be grounds for defamation if white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were an officially protected species.

And let's just forget that this movie is distributed by Universal, the most shameless purveyor of bad comedy in the Hollywood Hills. (Hey, making both Flintstones movies is enough, alone, to merit this sweeping statement.)

Because people are laughing. Or they will be. How could they not, with Ben Stiller squeezing himself into a Speedo? Or Robert De Niro as a bullet-head dad who trains his kitty to use the can?

"Meet the Parents," which began as a short film by comedian-director Greg Glienna, has one provocative premise: What if you visited your girlfriend's parents for the first time, only to come face to face with Travis Bickle? In other words, Robert De Niro at his toughest.

In this comedy, as Jack Byrnes, he's former CIA with a specialty in psychological profiling. And Jack loves his daughter, see. Which is why he favors lie detector tests over polite conversation when it comes to checking out his little girl's suitors.

Male nurse Greg (Stiller), who's in love with Jack's daughter Pam (Teri Polo), has his work cut out for him. But when he hears that Jack has just allowed a suitor to marry his other daughter because the guy asked his permission, Greg decides to make nice with the father-in-law from hell.

"Not many men in your profession, huh, Greg?" asks Jack, with that tight-lipped De Niro grimace. It's not a good start. But Greg is determined to keep trying – and that's what powers the movie. Hyper-sensitive Greg, who's painfully aware that he's a Jew imprisoned in a Norman Rockwell home, is so hot-wired to please that he messes up everything.

Agreeing to say grace at the dinner table, for instance, is definitely a bad idea. But Greg gamely tries.

"Oh Dear God," he begins. "You are such a good God . . ."

And so on. The situation is clear. Director Jay Roach (who did both "Austin Powers" movies) knows his sight gags. One of the best involves the aforementioned Speedo, which Greg has to borrow for the swimming pool when the airline temporarily loses his luggage. Roach also knows to play to the movie's twin strengths: Stiller and De Niro. Throw these guys together, turn up the intensity.

Stiller's absolute discomfort as Greg is essential. That tension tweaks everything. At the dinner table (again), Jack reads a tortured, confessional love poem dedicated to his late mother and her fatal bout with cancer. When he concludes, Greg is forced to make some sort of polite comment.

"Amazing," he begins, as the Byrneses stare at him. "So much love, yet also, so much information."

Speaking of too much information, you'll have to hear the rest of the jokes for yourself.

MEET THE PARENTS (PG-13, 108 minutes)Contains strong language, sexual situations and drug themes.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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