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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Meet the Parents
It's official: Ben Stiller is this generation's Woody Allen, the schlemiel who, against all odds, gets the girl. The difference, of course, is that Stiller only acts like a schlemiel; he looks more like a male model (which is what he'll be playing in his next movie, Zoolander). Still, it's the uneasiness Stiller projects, the eagerness to please, that makes him both nice-looking and nice-looking. He was reportedly chubby as a child, and maybe that's left him a little uncomfortable as a leading man. As for the eagerness to please, that could have come from growing up the son of Stiller & Meara, whose whole lives have been devoted to pleasing audiences. Whatever the sources, Stiller has Woody Allen's brain behind Daniel Day-Lewis' face, and the combination is a potent one. Those who used to wonder how Allen could lure all those shiksa goddesses into bed needn't wonder this time. A Jewish Cary Grant, Stiller is the silver screen's first neurotic hunk.

In Meet the Parents, the star of There's Something About Mary takes another swan dive into a cesspool of mental and physical degradation. This time, he's Greg Focker, a male nurse who's in love with a beautiful blond schoolteacher named Pam (Teri Polo). At the very moment he's trying to propose to her, Pam gets a phone call from her sister, who's just gotten engaged. The wedding's in two weeks, and it's the perfect opportunity for Greg the parents, a phrase that will strike fear in the heart of anyone who's ever been involved with, well, anyone. An anxiety dream sprung to life, Meet the Parents is what happens when you want to become the son-in-law but your potential father-in-law (Robert De Niro as an ex-CIA agent who will stop at nothing to hold on to daddy's little girl) doesn't want you to. It's also what happens when an urban Jew finds himself trapped in a suburban WASP's nest: He gets stung.

Boy, does he get stung. Director Jay Roach and scriptwriters Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg have created a series of minor and major mishaps that build like an avalanche. Pebbles include things we've all been through: the is-it-a-hug-or-is-it-a-kiss moment with Pam's mother (Blythe Danner), the painfully awkward talk about cars with Pam's father, the way your jokes don't seem to be going over very well, the way you tell outrageous lies just to have something to say, the way your soon-to-be spouse, upon arriving at the house she grew up in, turns into 1) her 10-year-old self or 2) a space alien. Greg handles all this with something resembling aplomb, Stiller being the master at expressing embarrassment that hasn't quite curdled into outright humiliation. But those pebbles are about to turn into boulders, and the guy behind it all is willing to use dynamite if that's what it takes to get the avalanche started.

The movie doesn't probe the father's character, just uses it as the springboard for what amounts to psychological warfare. (It's Father of the Bride meets Cape Fear.) And De Niro, drawing on various freaks and geeks he's played over the years, does a great job of balancing threat and nonthreat, intelligence and stupidity. He isn't a natural comedian; indeed, he's considered one of the world's most serious actors. But, as he did in Analyze This and King of Comedy, he makes his lack of comedic ability work for the role. De Niro's Jack is an ex-spy who hasn't quite come in from the cold--a control freak who, because he no longer has anybody to play spy-vs.-spy with, is reduced to planting hidden microphones and cameras all over his own house. In someone else's hands, the character might have seemed pathetic or, worse, psychopathic. De Niro locks into Jack's cluelessness, his inability to recognize that he's not exactly George Smiley.

In fact, Greg might have a fighting chance if he were willing to, you know, fight. The movie has to stretch our credulity to the breaking point in order to keep Greg under Jack's thumb, but Stiller and De Niro never lose the audience, even when Jack talks Greg into taking a lie-detector test and then asks him questions like, "Have you ever watched pornographic movies?" The thrust-and-parry between these two actors, both of whom are expert at underplaying, is pure pleasure, and they get some wonderful rhythms going, Stiller spraying words all over the screen, De Niro doling out lines like they were in secret code. If there's a problem, it's that too much of the movie has been left in their hands. As the mother, Danner is glorified window-dressing. And Polo's Pam? Well, let's just say there may have been something about Mary, but there isn't much about Pam--not that we haven't seen before, anyway.

Basically, she's the projection of Greg's desires for acceptance by the gentile world, and that's fine for the early scenes of Meet the Parents, which seem straight out of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint by way of Woody Allen's Annie Hall. But when the movie leaves Roth behind and veers into Kafka territory (Greg wakes up bugged!), we want Pam to come along for the ride. A Farrelly brothers comedy without the Farrellys (but complete with gross-out scenes that everybody will be discussing around the water-cooler next week), Meet the Parents isn't terribly ambitious; it just wants to make us laugh about something that, in real life, never seems all that funny. And if the movie runs out of places to go before reaching the end, that only increases our sense of a weekend from hell. The point of meeting one's future in-laws for the first time isn't to get to know them, after all, but to get out alive.

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