Meet the Parents (2000)

D: Jay Roach
S: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro

Amusing comedy based on the comparatively recent indie film of the same name. That film's director, co-writer, and star, Greg Gilenna is credited with both the 1992 screenplay and story (with Mary Ruth Clarke). He also gets an associate producer nod for this remake. The new film bears the production seal of, among others including DreamWorks SKG, co-star Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Productions. This is a peculiar concoction of production credits. It makes the film a sort of mainstream Hollywood/indie co-production, if such a thing is possible. However in the hands of director Jay Roach (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) and credited screenwriters Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg, there is certainly no danger of an edgy feel. It plays out as a happily conventional feel-good comedy in the standard mainstream mode bolstered by likable star performances and some moments of silly farce.

The story concerns the events which transpire when Ben Stiller is introduced to girlfriend Teri Polo's parents at their upstate home over an eventful wedding weekend (her younger sister's). The parents of the title are Robert DeNiro and Blythe Danner, though there is a whole family of potential future in-laws to face if Stiller can survive the occasion. You see the trouble is that he also wants to get married but DeNiro is fiercely traditional and notoriously hard on his daughter's boyfriends. The suitor therefore needs to win his respect before asking his permission to marry her. But when it turns out that DeNiro keeps an antique polygraph machine in a secret room in his basement, has an extraordinarily well trained pet cat whom he dotes over despite Stiller's dislike of cats in general, and there's an extremely wealthy and morally wholesome ex-boyfriend still living nearby, the odds are stacked against him from the start.

This is a film probably best appreciated when one has empathy with the central character's situation. Though the particulars will of course vary from actual experience, it is difficult for any male who has ever endured a similiar experience not to find something in here that will sting of recognition. As a comedy in more general terms, it does an adequate job of setting up the situation and letting the characters go about their business at a pace you more or less expect and appreciate, and there are several genuine laughs along the way. It isn't especially original though, and is sustained mostly by the little details and specific gags.

Stiller (There's Something About Mary) is well cast as the unfortunate paramour. He is believable and sympathetic in the role doing his characteristic proactive fish struggling half way out of water. DeNiro seems to have become particularly enamoured of comedy of late (Analyze This, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle), and he's good in a part which really requires only the slightest comic exaggeration to make his character work. Support from Danner, Polo, and an enjoyable appearance by Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon) help to maintain the sense of family dynamics at the centre of the story, and there are some bits of business with the aforementioned cat which might strike you the right way or might not.

The film on the whole is light and enjoyable. It doesn't really stretch the situation either for drama or farce. There are moments of disaster and mayhem such as when Stiller accidentally sets fire to a hand-carved wooden altar while chasing the cat across the roof. There are also attempts at more realistic characterisation which arise out of the generally low-key performance styles of Stiller and DeNiro. Roach and his writers generally aims for the middleground though, and the film seems designed for comfortable viewing in a way which belies its indie origins. It's not that it doesn't work: on the contrary, the film is fun; but one gets the persistent nagging sense that it is neither willing nor able to shift up a gear.

Meet the Parents is generally harmless broad-audience entertainment. It should appeal to casual viewers and won't tax anyone's patience unduly. It's probably best recommended to young couples with experiences of their own to compare with the events on screen. Fans of the cast will enjoy it all the more, though those expecting either There's Something About Mary or Austin Powers would be advised to look elsewhere and indie devotees will find nothing here to convince them that the mainstream is worthwhile.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.