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Non-Review Review: Meet the Parents

Meet the Parents is a pleasant little film which works so well because it takes an awkward social experience that most of us have lived through – in this case meeting a partner’s parents – and turns it into a comedy of errors. It’s this smart little premise and the way that it plays off a familiar situation (with judicious application of the philosophy that “anything that can go wrong will“) that makes it so appealing – and perhaps explains the weaknesses of the movie’s sequel. Still, the original is an effective and charming comedy of manners which executes its premise well and, despite some difficulty balancing everything, manages to consistently entertain throughout.

DeNirest and Dearest...

I like to think of Meet the Parents as a very British concept given a very American execution. Meeting potential in-laws is a source of great anxiety for even the most confident individuals and can turn into a disastrous social occasion with little or no notice – it’s so easy to put a foot wrong or to say the wrong thing or make an inappropriate joke. The setup feels very much like a traditional comedy set-up. And, although director Jay Roach made his name with the ridiculously over-the-top Austin Powers movies, it works that he never goes completely or ridiculously over-the-top and spends most of the film milking the social situation for all it’s worth.

Take, for example, a scene where prospective father-in-law Jack Byrnes makes it clear to his daughter’s boyfriend Greg that there is to be no hankey-pankey under his roof. It’s an awkward little moment, and one which probably rings true to members of the audience, but you can feel the temptation to turn it into a ridiculously gratuitous moment – have Greg say something ridiculous or have Jack make an absurd threat. Instead, Roach plays it as a low-key moment and the movie’s the stronger for it – it’s not an excuse for cheap laughs, but is a moment where the movie becomes recognisable – it’s not a farcical conversation, but one that is had around the world every day, but is equally awkward each and every time.

It’s moments like this where the movie rings true. Both Jack Byrnes and Greg Focker, the two leads played by Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller, are fairly shallow characters and both are treated as caricatures throughout the film (Jack gives Greg a real-life lie-detector test, for example), but it’s the moments where the audience members go “I would/could/might have done that” that strike close to home. Whether it’s a mistake made by a half-asleep Greg with the guest-room toilet or inadvertently explaining a marijuana reference to the straight-laced Jack, it’s these little moments where the movie really works.

It feels a little bit like that sometimes...

There are times when the movie does go to excess. Either Jack or Greg do something which is quite stupid or directly antagonistic, even in the context of the film. I’ll admit that some of these moments do provide the set-up for good jokes, but sometimes it just feels like too much. For example, how Greg deals with a missing cat seems absolutely ridiculous and pushes the movie out of the realm of awkward social comedy and into screwball yarn. The movie does have a bit of difficulty balancing the two types of humour within its own story, which creates a bit of bother when it asks the audience to identify with either Jack or Greg, given that both characters are prone to be reduced to one-note sketches at any given moment.

That said, it’s a relatively minor concern. It’s helped by the fact that a terrific cast has been put together. Ben Stiller can’t seem to fight off the screen persona of seeming like a little bit of a jerk in roles like this (with Greg seeming more than a bit stand-off-ish or condescending to his girlfriend’s family), but he has great comedic timing. DeNiro here is probably the best he has been in the past decade – yes, it’s not exactly the highest praise I could offer, but he’s certainly not bad. I never bought DeNiro in most of his comedic roles (for example, a psychologically-troubled mobster), but I do believe he could be the most terrifying parent of a significant other I could ever meet – he’d certainly be on the short list. Jack Byrnes is tailored to DeNiro’s “tough as nails” screen persona (perhaps even moreso than the mobster from Analyse This) and the movie pretty much runs on the assumption.

The rest of the supporting cast are solid, especially Blythe Danner and Owen Wilson. Wilson plays the wonder ex-boyfriend who is always accompanied with classical-sounding opera music, who can do no wrong and always has the perfect answer to any problem or dilemma. Hell, when he covers the cast in excrement, it’s still Greg’s fault. It works so well because Wilson is simultaneously highly likeable and unlikable – his screen persona almost always seems suave and like a nice guy, but at the same time seems like he’s intensely irritating because it seems physically impossible he’s really that nice (despite a lack of evidence to support that gut feeling).

It’s a neat little comedy, well-written and well performed. It can’t seem to decide on whether it’s attempting to be a ridiculously over-the-top screwball comedy, or a more subdued comedy of manners, but this is ultimately a relatively minor complaint. It works its core (and relatable) premise remarkably well, and has two hugely talented lead actors. You know you really should Meet the Parents. It’s just polite.

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2 Responses

  1. Truly splendid character comedy, boasting top shelf performances and a great script. I adore DeNiro in this – I find myself wanting to watch it over and over again just to watch him smirk and sneer and make remarks and faces to poor old Greg (Stiller). Good review, check out mine when you can!

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