Thursday, August 8, 2013

Focking Hell

Film: Meet the Parents
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I’m not going to pull a punch here—I dreaded Meet the Parents for a number of reasons. First, I’m not a huge fan of Ben Stiller. I like him sometimes, but I rarely like him as a featured actor (Zoolander being a notable exception). He grates on me. Second, I have a real problem with what I call “embarrassment comedy,” defined as a comedy where all of the humor comes specifically from someone being horribly embarrassed. Third, just from reputation, I knew a couple of the main jokes going in—Stiller’s character name isn’t Greg, but Gaylord Focker (har har) and it’s a point of comedy that he’s a male nurse.

So yeah, that’s what we’re headed into. Misandry and gay puns. Joy.

So it’s a pretty straightforward premise for a plot. Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Stiller) has been dating Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) for about ten months and now lives with her. As the film starts, he attempts to propose to her, using the kids she teaches to help (it’s actually kind of cute), but is interrupted when she gets a phone call from her sister. Said sister has just been proposed to by her doctor boyfriend of a few weeks or months. More importantly, the doctor boyfriend went through the important step of asking the father for permission first. This means we’re all going to the wedding and Greg will need to make a suitable impression and pop the question himself.

If you haven’t seen this, you can see where it’s going, can’t you? Greg’s suitcase is too big to carry on. Think it’ll get lost? Think the engagement ring is inside? And anything that can go wrong to give an unfavorable impression on the parents (played by Blythe Danner and Robert De Niro) does. Greg loses the treasured family cat, breaks his sister-in-law-to-be’s nose, and generally makes an ass out of himself in an effort to impress the humorless dad. Oh, and dad used to work counter-intelligence for the CIA.

The issue I have here isn’t that the film isn’t funny. There are genuinely good moments here. The sudden and impromptu lie detector—not a surprise since it’s one of the more famous scenes from the film—is funny and played very well. When he’s allowed to play on his persona, De Niro has the ability to be really funny; he’s a natural straight man, and can even deliver a punch line like a pro. No, the issue here is flatly this: I saw all the jokes coming.

Okay, maybe I didn’t see all of the nuanced little bits of everything or predict every line that would be spoken, but I definitely saw the jokes coming here. It’s obvious that the film is set up in a way to make Greg the butt of every joke who is both a schlemiel and a schlimazel (look ‘em up). And have we really not gotten beyond the point where a male nurse is funny? Sure, I realize that I can look at this as being an indictment on the Byrnes family for making fun of Greg for his occupation, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that we’re supposed to find this stuff funny, too. I’m also reminded of one of Roger Ebert’s old maxims—the only people who could get away with having a funny character name were Groucho Marx and W.C. Fields.

But my biggest issue is that all of the jokes come from a mile off. You’d have to be blind to not see them popping up on the radar. And that’s a shame because in the films where Stiller is good and worth watching, one of the reasons he’s worth watching is because the scripst aren’t so predictable. I’d throw out the aforementioned Zoolander as one example, as well as his turn as a comedically-stupid heavy in Dodgeball. Both of those films gave him a lot more to do, and despite his playing a mental midget in both, treated his characters with more respect. Hell, I even prefer Mystery Men.

So, bottom line, Meet the Parents is a tried-and-true premise that would have been a lot better if it had done more that wasn’t so obvious with it. There’s potential here and moments of fun, but it could have and should have been more than it is.

Why to watch Meet the Parents: It’s actually funny in places.
Why not to watch: The jokes are telegraphed.


  1. I actually didn't care for Zoolander, but that's because I have my own hangup about really stupid characters. I don't like them, so that has also ruled out most of Adam Sandler's and Will Ferrell's characters for me, too. Dodgeball I did kind of like because it was more about the good guys. Meet the Parents is one I would recommend, for what it's worth.

    My favorite movie that has Ben Stiller in it (as opposed to a Ben Stiller movie) is Zero Effect. I watched it for my Movies By the Numbers category a couple years ago because I didn't have anything to start off with the number zero. It was recommended to me by Courtney of Big Thoughts from a Small Mind. It was a pleasant experience. It stars Bill Pullman and Stiller is his assistant. Pullman's character is sort of a combination of Sherlock Holmes and The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

  2. I am with you, Steve, on this one. I have a similar problem with embarrassment comedy which means that I cringe me wat through the entire film. Also Stiller is not my favourite actor by a long shot. Zoolander and Dodgeball are actually the only two films where he is really good for me too.
    Add to this that Meet the Parents is one of my wife's favourite movies and I think you can see where I am heading...
    The one redeeming factor of Meet the parents for me is Owen Wilson. His part is not big, but exquisite. I like him in most of what he has been in and personally think Woody Allen was a genious when he turned his character type around for Midnight in Paris.

  3. @Chip--comedy, and especially what works for us in comedy, is personal. For me, comedy works when I don't see what's coming. Knowing what's going to happen and then seeing it happen--for me--isn't that funny most of the time.

    @TSor--Glad to know I'm not alone. This isn't a terrible film by any stretch (and who is more surprised than I), but it's hard for me to be surprised by obvious jokes. For instance, the minute I knew he had to check his carry on and that the ring was in it, I knew the back would be lost. Not funny. Expected.

    How to make that funny (for me). He has to check his back. The bag isn't lost, but he's told the guy who makes him check it that there's an engagement ring in the bag. Flight lands, he gets his bag but finds the ring stolen. That would be unexpected and make the same basic joke.

  4. This film and There's Something About Mary are essentially the same film to me, mostly because they had the same sort of hype, have very similar types of comedy, and elicited the same reaction from me. Both suffered from ridiculous overhype and wound up not being my cup of tea. I do not remember laughing once when I watched either film. I DO remember watching the clock and praying it would be over as soon as possible.

    1. It's really reassuring to know that I'm not the only person these films don't work perfectly on.

  5. I saw Meets the Parents was scheduled on IFC, so I DVRed it, knowing it was one of The List movies. I wasn't planning on watching it right away, but I got kind of anxious having it on the DVR, taking up space and infecting potentially good movies with its bad karma.

    Yeah, it's not good. It's not hard to watch, its not boring, but its basically a bunch of good to great actors doing their darnedest to make a bad script into a watchable but annoying movie.

    My biggest problem with this movie is that Greg (Ben Stiller) is a horrible horrible person. Jack (DeNiro) is awful too, but Greg doesn't turn into a good person just because Jack is awful.

    That scene where he puts the cat outside because its bothering him? It was an awful thing to do. Does the house not have any other rooms? No, he puts the cat outside despite being told its an outdoor cat that doesn't have the instinct to survive on the outside. To me, this is worse than anything that Jack does.

    And then the scene where he's careless with a lit cigarette and sets the yard on fire. Yeah. No wonder people hate smokers.

    Jack may be an awful person, but he's right about Greg Fokker. Teri Polo, get away as fast as you can! Greg will either put the kids outside when they are bothering him (where they will be hit by cars or eaten by wild dogs) or you'll all die in a fire caused by Greg's carelessness.

    1. You make a good point here. I think we're supposed to think that Greg is merely clumsy in the way that plenty of rom-com heroines and screwball comedy characters are clumsy. The fire issue could, in fact, be attributed to that. But a lot of this does seem thoughtless at at best and malicious at worst.

      Good actors trying to work with a bad script is probably accurate as well. The problem for me is that I simply can't think of a place in this movie where I didn't know what was going to happen minutes before it did. That's an issue.

    2. On a happier note, I DVRed Man of the West and I hope to get to it within a few days.