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[whitespace] Family Feud

Ben Stiller offends his future in-laws in the dysfunctional comedy 'Meet the Parents'

By Richard von Busack

SOME COMEDIES are on the brink of excruciation, and it's not because they're excruciatingly funny comedies. The embarrassment gets pumped up past the level that can be relieved with laughter. Such is Meet The Parents. Half of it works well enough to bypass the memory of the very recent, very similar Analyze This. Again, Robert De Niro plays an intimidating father-in-law to be. His daughter Debbie (Nicole DeHuff) arrives at their expensive Long Island home with her boyfriend (a live-in, but Dad doesn't know it). The boyfriend, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), is a nurse at a Chicago hospital; he has the deluded notion that it would be best to propose to Debbie while she's visiting her parents. This bad idea is worsened because the father keeps such a sharp eye on his daughter, and though he poses as a dealer in rare flowers, De Niro's Jack Byrnes is a career CIA interrogator who is terribly overprotective of his daughter.

Meet the Parents is a remake of a 1992 independent film of the same title, and the best scenes are the least broad ones, the ones that could be carried out on a small set or stage. First, the overtures as a warning of the troubles to come ("My dad says smoking is a sign of weakness"); then the first eyeballings of Focker by the unimpressed father. A horrifically uncomfortable first dinner together is the richest scene, the cast gathered around a roast beef that looks as gory as an amputated leg. Focker is pressured to come up with the blessing for the meal, and the movie throbs with an anti-Semitic undertone, unspoken and all the more insidious for it. (Focker, at a loss, starts reciting the lyrics of the Godspell show-tune "Day by Day.")

After this fiasco, every friendly overture from the young man is treated frigidly, as an unforgivable liberty. But as Focker's mishaps get bigger and splashier, they're a lot less interesting. Director Jay Roach is the kind of director who all but gives you the blueprints of an object before he destroys it with slapstick, and since his timing isn't much, it's mostly the tensions of this wealthy, proper family dealing with this strange urban interloper that make this comedy work. When these tensions are abandoned in favor of ever more obvious mishaps, the film stops tickling your funny bone and starts abrading your nerves.

Meet the Parents (PG-13; 108 min.) directed by Jay Roach, written by James Herzfeld and John Hamburg, photographed by Peter James, and starring Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller and Blythe Danner, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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