"Meet the Parents" is "comedy-torture"

by Robert J. Hawkins | Mar 8, 2001
If you find yourself cringing in empathy as much as you are laughing at the crazy-and-deep hole Ben Stiller digs for himself in "Meet the Parents," well, you are not alone. Director Jay Roach is right there wincing right along with you.

"Mike Meyers calls it `comedy-torture,`" said Roach recently in a phone conversation. "It`s comedy that pushes people to the edge ... keeps people in that tense place."

"Meet the Parents" is a comedy about one of the most tense experiences in a young man`s life: meeting the parents of the woman he wants to marry. In this case, when your prospective father-in-law is Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) retired - maybe - CIA interrogation specialist, you`re charting right off the top of the anxiety meter. (Roach describes Byrnes as a "Max (`Cape Fear`) Cady/Travis (`Taxi Driver`) Bickle wrapped in a tweed jacket and stroking a cat.")

Stiller is Greg Focker. Yep, lots of jokes about that one ... He`s a bright, earnest kid from Chicago, who works as a male nurse in a hospital. Yeah, the movie works the male nurse angle pretty hard, too. He`s madly in love with Pam Byrnes (Terri Polo), first-born and apple of Jack`s eye. Pam and Greg go home to Oyster Pond - WASP Land at its most pale - for the wedding of Pam`s sister. She`s marrying a doctor - a real doctor - the son of a prominent plastic surgeon.

Desperate to score points, Greg, the Jewish nurse from Chicago with the, um, odd last name, overplays his hand. He pretty much makes an ass of himself. But, oh, my gosh, is it funny. Remember when Stiller caught himself in his zipper at his prom date`s house in "Something About Mary"? Extend the agony of that gag for about three-quarters of a movie and you`ve caught the spirit of "Meet the Parents."

One reason that it rings so real for audiences might be that Roach - director of both "Austin Powers" comedies and the underrated "Mystery, Alaska" - completely identifies with Greg Focker`s character. Or so he says.

"I`m just like the character," he insists. "I`m always over-doing things, over-preparing. It is as though I`m compensating for some perceived inadequacy."

"Perceived" is probably the right word. Anybody truly that inadequate couldn`t have convinced Bobby De Niro to return for the sequel - which he has - or gotten as hilarious a performance out of him as Roach did in this movie. You better believe there will be a sequel. De Niro pretty well sets it up near the end, when he turns to his wife (Blythe Danner) and casually notes that they have yet to meet the parents of their future son-in-law and asks - rhetorically - "how bad can they be?"

Roach says Greg Focker`s parents haven`t been cast yet. But if you`re curious about where he`ll be heading with the sequel, he says, "You need only think of Ben`s real-life parents." They would be Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara - who turned their Jewish-Catholic marriage into one of the longest running and funniest stage acts in comedy history. Look for somebody like them.

But before Roach gets around to "Meet the Fockers," he`ll likely shoot "Austin Powers 3" with Meyers and he`s working on another project called "Fifty First Kisses." With "Meet the Parents," Roach has come into his own. "Austin Powers" is regarded as a Mike Meyers franchise. And while Roach directed "Mystery, Alaska" - it had the hands of the prolific David E. Kelley all over it.

Roach first began championing "Meet the Parents" back in 1997, but couldn`t get a studio to back him. He did get Steven Spielberg interested - only Spielberg wanted to direct the movie, with Jim Carrey in the Focker role. To Roach`s relief, neither superstar could open the same window of opportunity - so they both passed. As is his "over-compensating" style, Roach way over-shot this movie.

"I could make a great cut at 2 hours, 30 minutes, but nobody would sit through it," he said jokingly. (The movie is a comfortable 1 hour, 48 min.) The DVD`s bonus materials back him up. There are two hilarious outtakes included on the disc.

"A movie is like a conversation," says Roach.

When he thinks the "conversation" is beginning to drag, he cuts.

"Having DVD makes it a little less painful," he says. "You know you can put the good stuff that got cut on it."

He does dream of the ultimate "digital cut" - the movie that exists only in the digital network matrix.

"I could change it every week if I wanted to," he adds, a touch wistfully.ALSO THIS WEEK:

"The Broken Hearts Club," (Columbia Tri-Star, R, VHS/DVD) - Kind of like "Friends" - only the story is set in West Hollywood, not New York, and the characters are all gay guys. Drama queens, stud puppies, cabana boys, tortured souls and just regular fellows - the whole gang hangs out at the restaurant owned by John "Frasier" Mahoney - and not called Central Perk.

They live, they love, they laugh, they cry - friendships are tested. (Watch for this as a weekly series up against "Friends" in the fall ...).

"The Little Vampire" (New Line, PG, VHS/$20, DVD/$25) - That charming little Hollywood muffin Jonathan Lipnicki ("Stuart Little," "Jerry Maguire") is an American kid who moves into a Scottish castle with his family and befriends a family of vampires. They just want to become human, he just wants to star in a movie with the Olsen twins. (OK, kidding about the last part. But five bucks says that if he doesn`t eventually get a movie with them, he gets the lead in "Home Alone IV").

"Sam Kinison - Breaking the Rules" (Pioneer, unrated - but this is Kinison - VHS/DVD) - He was loud, he was brash, he was innovative - now he`s dead.

This is the HBO special that supposedly launched his career. Kinison died in a car crash in 1992 somewhere between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

"New York City Ballet Workout" (Palm Pictures, VHS/DVD) - Four dancers from NYCB - Helene Alexopoulos, Albert Evans, Deanna McBearty and Edwaard Liang - put you through 50 stretches and exercises. Inspired by the book of the same name.DVD UPDATE:

No story like it: It is touted as the "original roadshow version," which means it comes with intermission and overture restored - that`s George Stevens` "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

This star-studded epic portrayal of the life of Jesus was filmed in the early 1960s. Last week, Charlton Heston praised Max Von Sydow`s portrayal of Jesus as "the best ever in a movie."

Heston played John the Baptist. When recruiting Heston for the film, Stevens tried to convince him that he would be the star. Heston laughed, recalling the ruse.

"Any movie that has Christ in it," he said, "will not have John the Baptist as the star!"

Still, he grabbed the role just for the chance to work for Stevens. (More from Heston next week, on a movie in which he was the star: "Ben Hur.")

Master of suspense: Ten titles from the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock are available for the first time on DVD this week. Leading the bunch is a newly restored "Rear Window," starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. The Universal Studio disc retails for under $30.

Films on DVD for the first time are "Family Plot," "Frenzy," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," Rope," "Saboteur," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Topaz," "Torn Curtain" and "The Trouble with Harry."

Each is similarly priced, under $30. Universal also offers a 3-volume DVD set, "The Best of Hitchcock" which has nearly 20 of his finest films (including all of these).

Another master: A newly re-mastered, re-mixed and re-edited version of one of the great documentaries about the King: "Elvis: That`s the Way It Is - Special Edition" (Warner, $25).

Producer Rick Schmidlin makes use of about 50,000 feet of recently discovered film of Elvis from the original shoot.

The documentary follows Elvis up to the opening night in Las Vegas of his 1970 show. What it captures all too painfully, for my eyes, is an artist who refused to take himself or his talent seriously - preferring to play the clown than to take risks.

By 1970, Elvis no more believed in his music than the millions of kids who abandoned him for the British Invasion bands and rock `n` roll. This isn`t meant to be a sad story, but it is.COMING ATTRACTIONS:

March 20: Sci-fi Channel`s triumphant broadcast coup, "Frank Herbert`s Dune" arrives on DVD.

April 3: Sequel that met with spotty success, "102 Dalmatians."

April 17: Alicia Witt and Harvey Fierstein in "Playing Mona Lisa."

April 24: Sean Connery in "Finding Forrester."

May 1: Disney animated feature, "The Emperor`s New Groove."

May 8: Recent TV drama, "The Miracle Worker," starring Hallie Kate Eisenberg.

Cher and Dennis Quaid team up in "Suspect."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Robert J. Hawkins


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