In the dating/courting "process," there are various required activities that often put nerves on end, get the palms sweaty and occasionally near being traumatic for the involved parties. The first and last, of course, involve the big questions - asking someone out for a first date and then proposing marriage - that pose the greatest risk of rejection for the asker.
Somewhere usually in between those two is the moment where the boyfriend and girlfriend have to meet the other's parents and family. While most such meetings usually go off without a hitch and everyone gets along fine, others occasionally hit bumps of varying heights where first impressions and expectations from both sides don't always mesh.
My personal experience in the arena involved meeting my wife's parents for the first time more than a decade ago. After having spent a long weekend with them and 16 other extended family members in a two bedroom, one bath lake cabin in northern Minnesota, we returned to their suburban home. Knowing that I was a big movie fanatic (in the days long before Screen It), they sent me and my girlfriend off to the video store to choose a movie.
While the local store didn't have a big selection, there were a few older films I recognized and somewhat remembered seeing. The final choice was up to me, with my girlfriend's only caveat being that it had to be a film we could watch with her parents. Unfortunately, in those days I didn't pay much attention to the content, and certainly didn't remember the specifics of older films. Thus, with our selection in hand, we returned home and put in "Body Double."
For those not familiar with the film, it's a highly stylized rip-off of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" that includes - how shall I put it - decidedly adult material and language that one would never watch with the potential future in-laws unless you were marrying into the Charles Manson family. Needless to say, as I sat in front of them and couldn't see their faces, I could only imagine what they were thinking ("What kind of weirdo/pervert/loser has our sweet daughter become involved with?") as I suddenly remembered the film and its more "memorable" scenes. Thankfully, I recovered from that debacle and things went more smoothly from that point on.
That said, I easily sympathized with - but often laughed hysterically at - Ben Stiller's hapless character in "Meet the Parents," a comedy that plays off that dreaded moment in many relationships. Of course, this isn't the first film to use that plot element to fuel all or some of its story -- in fact, it's based on a short 1992 film with the same name and basic plot - but it's certainly one of the funniest to do so.
While one could imagine this sort of film falling into the "It would have been better as a short skit rather than feature length film" argument, director Jay Roach ("Mystery, Alaska," the "Austin Powers" films) and screenwriters Jim Herzfeld ("Meet the Deedles") and John Hamburg ("Safe Men") manage to get a lot of mileage out of the basically one-note and seemingly limited plot.
Although the well begins to run a bit dry in places as the story zips along into its second half, the filmmakers manage to insert and elicit a great many laughs from their humorous and cleverly set up individual jokes and sequences, as well as the funny dialogue and overall inspired storyline.
The object of such a film - from the filmmakers perspective - is obviously to introduce the players into the potential-filled, comedic situation, set up a few small mishaps and then let things progressively get more and more out of control for the bumbling protagonist. It's a plot device that's worked since the beginning of the cinema and this film certainly doesn't ruin that tradition.
Things start out okay for the protagonist, played to comically befuddled perfection by Ben Stiller ("Keeping the Faith," "Mystery Men"), with only a few small waves rocking his boat. As the story progresses, however, more and more comic misfortune occurs, often with hilarious and/or inspired results. One such scene that has to be seen to be appreciated fully, involves the family cat, a bottle of champagne and an urn containing the maternal remains of our protagonist's chief foil, the girlfriend's father, while a trip up onto the family roof provides for some great physical comedy gags.
Now, any number of actors could have been picked for the father part - ranging from the likes of a Woody Allen type or the more familiar, exasperated character played by Steve Martin in the "Father of the Bride" films, to an imposing and physically intimidating Arnold Schwarzenegger type. Instead, the filmmakers chose a performer who may just be the most inspired and perfect choice for the role, a guy known for once playing diverse tough guys, but who's now seemingly turned to the comedic side of life.
Yes, we're talking about Robert De Niro ("The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," "Analyze This"), and he delivers a comic tour de force out of what on paper originally probably wasn't much more than a one-note character. Simultaneously charming and menacing - especially to a pushover like his future son-in-law - De Niro's take on his character is nothing short of a hilarious blast to watch and the slowly building, adversarial chemistry between him and Stiller is perfect.
As far as the supporting performances are concerned, they obviously fall into the shadows of the film's leads, but Blythe Danner ("The Love Letter," "Forces of Nature") and Teri Polo ("The Arrival," TV's "Sports Night") do a decent job playing the "straight men." The exception is Owen Wilson ("Shanghai Noon," "The Haunting") who delivers yet another amusing and understated performance as the girlfriend's charming and unbelievably lucky/successful ex-fiancée.
Other bits involving the sister's future in-laws provide for a few laughs, but little of what involves the sisters' brother - played by Jon Abrahams ("Scary Movie," "Boiler Room") - does much for the film and strains credibility a bit much (it's doubtful he could get away with what he does living under his father's roof and those highly trained eyes, ears and nose).
Even so, those are only small objections to this otherwise constantly amusing and often hilarious film. While the laughs might be spread farther apart as the story begins to run out of gas late in its second half and coasts toward its conclusion, most viewers will probably get a kick out of De Niro and Stiller's characters and their performances, as well as the various shenanigans the filmmakers have inserted into the proceedings. As such, "Meet the Parents" might not be sophisticated comedy, but it's certainly enjoyable. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.