In some ways, Meet the Parents is the perfect comedy: You chuckle in the dark, then walk outside and forget instantly where you've been the past two hours. It's as harmless as any movie in search of a small screen, perhaps because it feels like a pilot for a new NBC fall series, in which an ex-CIA man (De Niro) pretends to be a retired florist while scaring all hell out of his daughter's would-be fiancé (Stiller). Little matter that the premise peters out quickly; the show would be canceled in its fourth week anyway.
Directed by Jay Roach, the other man responsible for the Austin Powers twofer, Meet the Parents plays like a series of sketches that never turns into a cohesive whole. Its funniest moment comes at the very end, when Stiller peers into one of De Niro's hidden cameras (they're all over the house) and delivers a scabrous, manic monologue (don't worry -- this spoils no plot points, because there are none past the setup). It's the exclamation point at the end of a shrug, allowing the audience to leave on a high note after many lowbrow ones. After all, ballistic is what Stiller does best: His eyes bulge, his temples throb, and his voice cracks until his mania builds toward inevitable, wonderful breakdown. Here, he's Mr. Furious redux, a man striking back after so much humiliation at the hands of his beloved's crazy old man. At its best, his performance is cathartic -- a roaring, hysterical screw-you.
But the film never matches his frenzy. Instead, it pokes along with limp, obvious jokes and slapstick delivery; it never quite gets going, even though it's in such a hurry to wrap things up. The movie barely has time to begin: When first we meet male nurse Greg Focker (Stiller), he's seconds away from proposing to his sweetie of a few months, Pam Byrnes (Felicity's Teri Polo). But he's interrupted by a call from Pam's sister, who has phoned to say she's engaged to a man her daddy absolutely adores. As it turns out, the Byrnes girls can't get engaged till Jack (De Niro) offers his approval, and Greg hasn't yet met the old man, much less asked for his permission. Then, just as the opening credits end, Greg and Pam are on a plane to the picturesque upstate New York home of Jack and Dina Byrnes (Danner), where Pam's little sister will get hitched at the end of the weekend. Between Friday and Sunday, Greg hopes to win Jack's affection and his daughter's hand.
Of course, things go horribly for Greg from the moment he pulls into the driveway; Jack, a man so square he refuses to believe that "Puff the Magic Dragon" has two meanings, even hates the color of Greg's rental car. And Jack, who's taught the family cat how to wave and use the toilet, distrusts any man -- that is to say, Greg -- who loves a dog. "You prefer an emotionally shallow animal," De Niro mutters with a face so straight it threatens to crack. "Cats don't sell you out the way dogs do." It only gets worse: Soon enough, Greg's knocking over urns containing the ashes of the dearly departed and wreaking havoc on what was to be a beautiful wedding weekend. It doesn't take long for Greg to realize that Jack's no florist, but rather a former CIA operative who may or may not still be working for the Company. Even the trailer gives it away: Jack has Greg hooked up to a lie detector, asking about porn. Wait, this has been on TV -- back when it was called Three's Company. It all makes sense now: Stiller has become our generation's John Ritter.
Jack dislikes Greg mostly for who he's not: Kevin Rawley (Owen Wilson), Pam's ex-boyfriend and, thanks to hitting it with some IPOs, a very rich young man. Kevin's too much The Perfect Boy: A carpenter in his spare time, the smirky Kevin fancies himself the modern-day "JC" -- Jesus Christ, that is. It doesn't help Greg's cause that he's a Jewboy; Daddy comes off as vaguely anti-Semitic, kinda like Hitler.
Without De Niro, of course, the film wouldn't work. Only he possesses baggage and balls enough to make Jack menacing just beneath the placid, suburban surface. But he's still slumming it, scowling on autopilot as he mutters "Focker" over and over again long after the joke has lost its punch. After The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Flawless, it's nice to see De Niro without that embarrassed look on his face, but he still plays comedy as though it were beneath him -- a paycheck. One wonders if this is how he'll spend the second half of his career: goofing on the first half.