"Hollywood Boulevard," the outlandish 1976 Joe Dante-Allan Arkush satire on the movie business, featured a studio called Miracle Pictures whose motto was, not surprisingly, "If it's a good picture, it's a miracle." In that spirit, and in the best possible sense, "Meet the Parents" is something of a miracle itself.
This buoyant, giddy comedy of catastrophe is the funniest film of the year so far, possibly the most amusing mainstream live-action comedy since "There's Something About Mary." But what's really striking about this story of a prospective son-in-law meeting the father-in-law from hell is the way it came into the world.
Most funny pictures these days, especially ones that come from studios, have the easily identifiable imprint of one key creative force, whether it be writer-director combos like the Farrelly brothers on "Mary" or an actor like Mike Myers for the two "Austin Powers" films that were previous credits for "Parents" director Jay Roach.
This film, however, apparently got developed the old-fashioned way, with individual pieces coming together as they rarely do successfully anymore. A sharp producer named Nancy Tenenbaum ("sex, lies, & videotape," "The Daytrippers") acquired the rights to a short film (story credit going to Greg Glienna & Mary Ruth Clarke) and hired comedy writer Jim Herzfeld to turn it into a feature. Director Roach liked an early draft, and once stars Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller were added on, a second writer, John Hamburg, was brought on to help fit the script to their verbal styles. It's the kind of studio-coordinated process that has ruined more films than it's helped, but here it worked, well, miraculously.
How "Meet the Parents" gets its laughs is equally traditional: an old-fashioned emphasis on shrewd casting, well-timed line readings and clever, on-target acting. Nicely complementing the light and genial but very sure touch Roach provides is an elaborate plot featuring visual and verbal gags that are worked out to a remarkable degree.
Even "Parents' " premise is time-honored and durable. Take an inevitably awkward situation--a young man eager to make a good impression on the couple he hopes will be his future in-laws--and ratchet the embarrassment factor up through the roof. The result is a series of insanely improbable but genuinely comic situations, a cacophonous 48 hours only some very devilish screenwriters could devise.
Stiller stars as Greg Focker, a deeply sincere male nurse, clean-cut but something of a worrier. Going out with schoolteacher Pam Byrnes ("Felicity's" adept Teri Polo) has made the past 10 months in Chicago the happiest of his life, and he's nervously plotting and planning for just the right way to ask her to marry him.
Literally at the last moment, however, Greg accidentally discovers that the politic thing to do would be to ask Pam's father's permission before he asks Pam. An expert in rare flowers who lives in tony Oyster Bay, N.Y., Jack Byrnes is, his daughter assures Greg, "the sweetest man in the whole world." And since Pam's sister is about to be married, a trip to meet the parents seems the natural thing to do.
As soon as Jack opens the door and Greg sees a serial killer look-alike scowling suspiciously as only De Niro can scowl, the young man knows there's been a break in communication somewhere. A prickly human minefield who's so strong-willed he took exactly one week to train his beloved Himalayan cat Jinx to use the toilet, Jack is clearly not the person Greg has been led to believe.
De Niro has ventured into comedy many times before, and not always with the happiest results. "Meet the Parents," however, is a different story. With a part that allows him to draw on and spoof his previous sinister roles, it's the dead-on funniest the actor has ever been. Who else could make the benign concept of "a circle of trust" sound as comically threatening as he does here?
As the man who feels so threatened, Stiller is little short of ideal. Always a gifted comic actor, he's the engine of earnestness that drives the film, a Jew in a nest of WASPs (something mentioned in passing and then smartly used only as subtext) who simply can't catch a break. Greg's gift for saying and doing the wrong thing rises to the level of genius, and as things go from bad to unimaginably worst he's well within his rights when he says, "I feel like this is not going well at all."
With Blythe Danner as Jack's happy-face wife and Owen Wilson formidably funny as Pam's obscenely wealthy ex-boyfriend, "Meet the Parents" is finely cast (by Ellen Chenoweth) and always outrageous in depicting Greg's misery and the unintentionally chaotic payback he delivers to his tormentors. Love never had more calamities to conquer, or got more laughs in the process.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content, drug references and language. Times guidelines: everything treated in a lighthearted manner.
'Meet the Parents'
Robert De Niro: Jack Byrnes
Ben Stiller: Greg Focker
Blythe Danner: Dina Byrnes
Teri Polo: Pam Byrnes
James Rebhorn: Larry Banks
Owen Wilson: Kevin Rawley
Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures present a Nancy Tenenbaum Films and a Tribeca production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Jay Roach. Producers Nancy Tenenbaum, Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Jay Roach. Screenplay Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg. Story Greg Glienna & Mary Ruth Clarke. Cinematographer Peter James. Editor Jon Poll. Costumes Daniel Orlandi. Music Randy Newman. Production design Rusty Smith. Art director John Kasarda. Set decorator Karin Wieseld. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
In general release.