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The Director as Best Actor

Jay Roach may have looked at ease directing De Niro and Stiller in 'Meet the Parents,' but he's a man who knows the meaning of anxiety.

October 05, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jay Roach thinks he's a fraud.

Sure, he may have directed two of the most successful comedies of the 1990s--"Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and its sequel, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." And now he's gotten to work with no less an esteemed duo as Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in "Meet the Parents," which is getting terrific reviews in advance of its nationwide opening Friday.

But he doesn't really know what the heck he's doing, and all the success is just smoke and mirrors and luck--and one of these days he's bound to be exposed.

At least that's the feeling he can't shake.

Sitting over lunch at a Universal Studios dining room, with former Universal Chairman Lew Wasserman in the background and a steady stream of executives and colleagues stopping by to say hello, the casually dressed Roach, 43, seems at ease, a natural fit in the world of major motion pictures.

It's a ruse, he swears.

There's a 1966 film, "Andrei Roublev" by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, that Roach loves. He describes in detail a scene in which a young boy is thrust into the job of making a new bell for a church after his father, the master bell-maker, dies. The boy cockily tells everyone he can do the job. But when the bell is raised and rung--without cracking--a monk finds the boy curled up in the mud, crying because he, in truth, had no idea what he was doing and was living a big lie.

That's what directing is like to Roach, who confesses, "I have no idea how it works. I just this morning saw the completed last reel of my film for the first time, and I was weeping. I was going, 'I can't believe I survived this.' I just had to pretend like it would work. After the film I said, 'Oh, my God, this actually works! How did I do that?' "

*

Perhaps it's the anxiety and self-doubts that made Roach the perfect person to helm "Meet the Parents," which he describes as "an anxiety dream." It's the story of a would-be son-in-law (Stiller) and his first stay with his potential bride's folks. The over-protective, idiosyncratic father (De Niro) thinks no one is good enough for his little girl and runs the suitor through the ringer. The basic formula has been seen before--from the racially charged "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" to the boorish Pauly Shore vehicle "Son in Law."

Here, Stiller's Greg tries so hard to make a good impression that he ends up digging himself deeper into stupid lies, implausible stories and humiliating predicaments every frame. He's a smoker and indifferent to cats in the militantly smoke-free house of someone who's trained his cat to use the toilet. He's a city boy who ends up improvising (badly) tales of farm life.

Getting in over your head and having to deal with it is a theme that runs through Roach's films. Mike Myers' Austin Powers character is a clueless buffoon who's powered purely by ego. And in his other film, "Mystery, Alaska," a ragtag bunch of local amateur hockey players takes on a team of pros that comes to town.

Those are concocted scenarios, though. For Roach, the situation in "Meet the Parents" is all too plausible.

"It became clear to me that the movie was more and more personal as I went along," he says, offering up his own experience meeting the family of his wife, musician Susanna Hoffs of the just-reunited Bangles.

"I mean, I really was drawn to the script originally because Ithought it was hilarious. I did identify with the main character," Roach says. "But I had no idea how close it was to my approach to life. I had a couple of long relationships before I met Sue, but they didn't work out because I would start to overcompensate for things and cover for the overcompensations, and as soon as you cover for anything, then you're vulnerable to exposure and then you worry about that.

"When I met Sue and found out her father was a psychoanalyst, it was terrifying. I was already convinced, had been convinced for years, that I was severely mentally ill and I'd been covering for it. And now to meet the father-in-law who'd see right through it?"

In truth, he quickly adds, Hoffs' father proved to be "the coolest, nonjudgmental person," and he and the musician have lived happily, with two young sons to show for it. And Hoffs' mother, writer-director Tamar Hoffs, and Roach for a brief time made up what he says is likely the only mother-in-law/son-in-law writing team working together on a project. So he worried for nothing.

That experience was paralleled in the pre-production phase of "Meet the Parents" when Roach, who had been interested in making the movie--the screenplay is by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg--for several years, was trying to nail down the lead actors. The crucial moment came when he went to make his pitch to De Niro, who was just coming off the hit mob comedy "Analyze This."

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