Published September 1, 2000
The comic insight at the heart of Jay Roach’s Meet the Parents lies in establishing the nexus between humorlessness, paranoia and sentimentality in Robert De Niro’s portrayal of every bachelor’s nightmare of the father of his intended. The late Adolf Hitler, I believe, had the same three qualities, though this is not a comparison in which the film takes an interest. Instead, it makes De Niro’s Jack Byrnes a CIA agent—which I suppose is Hollywood’s idea of a slightly more palatable version of Hitler—supposedly living under cover as a buyer and seller of flowers. Although Jack is meant to seem an unpleasant man, his comic function is to be less unpleasant than he would probably be in real life. Instead of a genuinely tough hombre, he is only meant to be a caricature of what the feminists call “patriarchy”—while remaining just “daddy” to his darling “Pamcakes” (Teri Polo).
Under Pam’s influence, he is transformed into a nice guy—or rather he very oddly agrees to act as if he were a nice guy long enough for his daughter to get married to Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), who is meant to seem to us a genuinely nice guy but very far from Jack’s ideal son-in-law. Though Greg is Jewish, the film doesn’t want to mess around with anything even close to anti-semitism (so what is the point of making him Jewish?) on the part of the old man. That would be too serious and make him a really un-nice guy. Instead he is merely crotchety and safely old-fashioned about his daughter’s sex life ( “Keep the snake in its cage for 72 hours,” he warns a terrified Greg) and in making fun of Greg for being a nurse. Maybe this is sailing a little close to the wind.
He is also dottily eccentric in his baby-talking devotion to his snooty-looking Himalayan cat, “Mr Jinks,” whom he has trained to use the toilet. His sentimentality about the cat is just disgusting enough to make him ridiculous but not so much as to make him nasty. It also gives him one of many amusing points of difference with Greg, whom he is convinced is a cat-hater. When Greg tries to explain that he is just “more of a dog-person,” dad questions him: “You need that assurance do you? You prefer a shallow animal?” Whereupon he explains that cats’ independence of spirit is to be preferred to the slavish worship of dogs. “Cats don’t sell out like dogs do.”
His doting on the cat seems somehow related to Jack’s humorlessness and literal-mindedness (wouldn’t these qualities be a disqualification for the CIA?), and one of the film’s funniest moments comes when he puts Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” on the car stereo, and Greg comments—as we witness his mounting realization that this is all news to Jack—on the song’s well-known association with the drug culture. “Puff was just the name of the boy’s magical dragon,” says Jack finally in something like high dudgeon. “Are you a pot-head, Focker?”
The screenplay by James Herzfeld and John Hamburg is well-written and contains a number of well-executed comic situations and crisp one-liners. Of course, Jack gets all the best lines, as when he responds to the news that his cover is blown with Greg by sitting him down and saying: “As long as you can keep your mouth shut for the rest of your life, you’re in no immediate danger.” And then he adds with the air of man conferring a great prize that “You are now inside what I call the Byrnes family circle of trust.” There is also a good running gag about milking cats, and when Mr Jinx disappears a barely compos mentis Jack confronts Greg: “You tried to milk him, didn’t you, you sick sonofabitch?”
But there is not really much of a challenge to Mr. De Niro’s talents in this caricature of a part, and Miss Polo’s Pam and Blythe Danner as her mother are pretty much comic bystanders. The real work of the film’s humor is done by the reactions of Mr. Stiller, its greatest asset, who shows once again as he did in There’s Something About Mary and Flirting with Disaster, that his comic forte is the representation of a kind of meek ordinariness and middle-class ingenuousness being goaded first into quiet desperation and then into explosive self-assertion by the irrationality and insensitivity of those around him. This is a performance which marks him out as one of the great comic actors of his generation, and the film is worth seeing for it alone.