Sunday, February 01, 2009

#42 Film of the Decade- Meet the Parents

Meet the Parents- Jay Roach (2000)

Meet the Parents has reached rarefied comedic air by now, and a long life on cable will make it this decade's version of Stripes or Coming to America, but it succeeds in a way most American comedies never can: by creating as much discomfort as possible within a completely realistic setting.

Unsuccessful mainstream comedic films--the bulk of them, unfortunately--show the promise of a great first act by presenting the high concept problem that likely got the idea sold. But then the movie doesn't really take off after that. The filmmakers either ratchet up the conflict by making the characters more contrived, or we're strung along until a completely unsatisfying resolution for all this craziness is heaped into our lap. Meet the Parents, however, only deepens the characters' motivations and relationships as it goes, so we never lose sight of what is really at stake. Even as Ben Stiller is bumbling across power lines on the roof, he seems real in this situation.

If you disagree with me, think for a second about the second act's introduction of the Owen Wilson ex-boyfriend character. Up until this point, Greg Focker's awkwardness has been rooted in the Brynes household, but when you expand the movie to a place that is even more dangerous and uncomfortable, it simultaneously ups the ante and grounds the characters. It helps that Wilson steals every scene he's in, and he seems to know that exaggerating the supporting characters only makes us relate to Stiller's everyman more.

In the end, Meet the Parents rests on its two heavyweight comedic performances; and if Robert DeNiro continues to make the baffling decisions he has recently, it might go down as his last great piece of work. The tenuous tone of the whole piece rests on his shoulders, and he manages to level a movie that could have easily become too broad for its own good. At the time, many critics said he went against type just because this is such an outright comedy, but the trick of what he does is that he's actually playing exactly his type. Instead of imagining a funny version of Travis Bickle, he just does what Travis Bickle really might be like twenty-five years later. That extreme version of a straight man only makes the audience squirm more as we move from one setpiece to the next.

As for Stiller, he's essentially playing a straight man too. It's the tension that brings out the comedy. For most of the film's running time, he gets precious few zingers. So many of the big laughs come from his mannered reactions to the hijinx around him, and he finally perfects the Dustin Hoffman-type, on-edge leading man personality that had led to nothing but flops before this movie. The insecurities of the Greg Focker character are more specific than you probably remember, but Stiller's uneasiness and hesitation have a way of making them universal.

Meet the Parents isn't a perfect movie--you'll have to go much higher in the list for that--but it's a simple idea executed with resolute exactness, and it's going to live on because of that. And that sequel? Never happened as far as I'm concerned.

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