Funny as well as touching, `Meet the Parents' blazes forth as one of the outstanding comedies of recent years.
Co-writers Greg Glienna and Mary Ruth Clarke, along with director Jay Roach, have managed to make a film that is often laugh-out-loud hilarious without ever becoming overbearing or obnoxious, the style of choice for far too many other comedies made in this day and age. Although the film overflows with madcap situations and even outright slapstick at times, these comic elements are always tethered to the reality of the premise and to the emotional states of the characters involved.
The foundation for any great comedy must, first and foremost, be its ability to connect with its audience on a personal level. `Meet the Parents' does so from the very start by tapping into the universal dilemma we all face at one time or another of desperately trying to make a good impression on someone we feel holds nothing less than the fate of our lives in their own two hands. For some of us this person might come in the form a boss or a potential employer or, as in poor Greg Focker's case, those most dreaded figures of all the prospective in-laws. The comedy arises from seeing the chain of ever more preposterous events and circumstances that come along to sabotage his efforts. Greg is a goodhearted, well-meaning nebbish who wants nothing more out of life than to marry Pam, the girl he loves. First, however, he must climb over the rather formidable barrier of her eccentric father, Jack Byrnes, played to perfection by Robert De Niro, who certainly has his own offbeat way of looking at the world.
The triumph of this film is that it never overdoes anything. The people in Pam's family and in their coterie of friends are all twisted it's true, but twisted in sly, subtle ways that knock both Greg and us slightly off our balance. Like Greg, we never quite know where these people are coming from and this greatly enhances the comedic quality of the film. Tone is everything in comedy and here the tone is just right. Byrnes can seem at one moment to be a reasonable loving father, then turn immediately around and make the most unbalanced comments about the most trivial matters. Even when the movie is at its most outrageous in terms of plot complications and slapstick, it never veers off the scale into incredibility. Part of the reason is that we feel so much empathy for Greg, the best Everyman character I have seen in a movie in a long time. Ben Stiller gives a beautifully understated comic performance in the main role. Greg's completely understandable feelings of nervousness, intimidation and growing frustration help to keep the film anchored in reality, even as the story threatens to spiral off into undisciplined absurdity. Luckily, the filmmakers never let this happen. They are also blessed with the genius of Mr. De Niro, who never makes a false move as the seemingly crazy ex-CIA agent who may or may not be harboring a few secrets of his own. Above all, De Niro never lets us bank on the extent of his character's eccentricity, which brilliantly enhances this `weekend from hell' scenario. For crazy and maddening as he can be at times, we can't help loving this character.
Finally, unlike in many other romantic dramas and comedies, the relationship between the young couple in this film is both believable and touching. Greg and Pam are so likable - and the odds against them seem so staggering - that we find ourselves rooting them on from first moment to last. Their moments together are genuinely touching at times, particularly in the film's closing stretches.
Kudos go out to everyone involved for making `Meet the Parents' one of the slyest, wittiest and flat-out funniest movies to come our way in a long, long time.
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