Archive for Thursday, December 23, 2004

Fockers” exploits comedic discomfort

December 23, 2004

Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller play Bernie and Greg Focker in "Meet the Fockers."

Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller play Bernie and Greg Focker in "Meet the Fockers."

Contemporary comedy has learned how to profit from the discomfort of others.

It's becoming more common to see how many humiliating situations a hero can be subjected to with the audience sharing in the pain/humor. Perhaps TV's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" does this best. But some great modern comedies have exploited this concept, from "After Hours" to "There's Something About Mary."

In 2000, "Meet the Parents" became one of the most successful to rise from this genre. Its sequel continues the tradition, though with admittedly diminishing results.

"Meet the Fockers" picks up two years after jittery male nurse Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) proposed to Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), upon winning the blessing of her parents, retired CIA analyst Jack (Robert De Niro) and Dina (Blythe Danner). Until now, Greg had been stalling to avoid a meeting between his own kin and his future in-laws.

Soon Greg and the Byrnes clan are driving Jack's massive RV down to Miami to do what the title of the film proclaims. But how bad can this gathering be? Greg's mom, Roz (Barbra Streisand), is a doctor and his dad, Bernie (Dustin Hoffman), is a lawyer.

At least that's what Greg tells the intimidating Jack.

In reality, Roz is a sex therapist, author of self-help books such as "Is Your Vagina Happy?," while Bernie is the type of New Age idealist who introduces Jack to his friends as "my brother from another mother."

To paraphrase the tagline from "The Odd Couple": Can two couples share a home without driving each other crazy?

Of course not, which is why the movie contains an underlying edginess that gives it momentum even when not a whole lot is going on thematically.

Thankfully, the new players in the sequel seem to be having a grand time. Unlike "Ocean's Twelve," where the actors constantly draw attention to the fact they are really MOVIE STARS, Streisand and Hoffman do a thorough job of burying themselves in these colorful characters. After just a few minutes, viewers will forget they're watching Dustin and Barbra and react to them as Bernie and Roz.

The same can't be said of Stiller and Polo. The pair shared a sweet relationship in the initial film that made his continued devotion plausible despite a disastrous string of obstacles. But Stiller seems uninterested in the romantic part of the romantic-comedy equation, and Polo looks like she's trying not to get in anybody's way.

Like most cinematic ideas that were never structured to sire a sequel, "Fockers" asks the audience to put up with a lot of contrivance. A good passel of the gags seem familiar - a horny family dog, the relentless use of the family name for cheap laughs - and the forced ending really clunks.

Fortunately, the picture has two lingering scenes that are so excruciatingly funny they compensate for the material that flounders. And the key word is excruciating.

The first involves a dinner conversation that calls to mind an infamous one from the original that ends with the family cat using the ashes of Jack's mother as a litter box. Here, both families are trying to exchange pleasantries during their first evening together, but the dippy liberalism of the Fockers can't help but clash with the repressive conservatism of the Byrnes.

But that's only the beginning, as Greg's parents keep subjecting him to one embarrassment after another - from tales of his first sexual experience to photo albums of his circumcision.

The other involves an engagement toast that Greg gives to his extended family after being subjected to sodium pentothal (truth serum). There is a reason why saying what one is really thinking isn't always the most diplomatic move.

These scenes inevitably break down to a confrontation between Greg and Jack. It's not only humorous that Greg is forever on the defensive when trying to prove his manhood/ loyalty/ competence. It's equally amusing seeing Jack trying to convince himself that his future son-in-law isn't a lemon like the evidence suggests, as when he views a family "shrine" to the boy's undistinguished childhood.

Jack quips, "I didn't know they made ninth-place ribbons."

Consider "Meet the Fockers" worthy of a fourth-place ribbon. It's by no means a total loser, but it's hard to get overly excited by the endeavor.

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