I had a good time at Meet the Parents, even though the ratio of clinkers to yucks is disproportionately high. Ben Stiller plays a male nurse who is spending an extended weekend with his girlfriend (Teri Polo) at her Waspish parents’ home, where he hopes to impress the father, played by Robert De Niro, with his qualifications as a potential son-in-law. A fair amount of the film plays out like an extended version of a similar setup in Annie Hall, but the filmmakers – director Jay Roach (Austin Powers) and screenwriters Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg – wisely don’t milk the Jewish-Gentile material. They’re too busy milking everything else, including aberrant house cats, male-nursedom, caca jokes, and the last name of Stiller’s character: Focker.
What keeps all of this engaging for those of us who have already been shaving for a while is the comic rapport between Stiller and De Niro. Stiller’s character – an ardent patsy – is familiar by now from his many other comedies, but he’s never played it better; there’s a whole vortex of calculation behind that wall-eyed stare of his. De Niro, playing a martinet patriarch who once worked as a psychological profiler for the CIA – his daughter calls him “a human lie detector” – turns every one of his dialogue sequences into a nut-brain debriefing. When he hooks Stiller up to a polygraph machine, we’re watching a family-initiation nightmare of the ripest sort.