Meet the Fockers

Jay Roach’s sequel to his Meet the Parents (2000) is the cinematic equivalent of asset-stripping — from the title, Meet the Fockers, on down. Now that the secret of his marvelous name is out, Ben Stiller’s character is no longer known as Greg but almost always “Gay” or “Gaylord” Focker instead. It is a symptom of the extent to which Meet the Fockers tries too hard to exploit its most obvious comic materials for maximum effect without any regard for the serious side of comedy, the side that still manages to look to any significant extent like real life. Thus, neither what would once have seemed the most interesting source of comedy, the clash of WASP and Jew, nor the more permanently interesting — indeed, archetypal — encounter of the father of daddy’s little girl and the man who proposes to take her away from him, is of much interest here. Instead, the comic figure of control-freak and ex-CIA man Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) is made into a mere caricature, a buffoon.

For the scary spook with his high-tech surveillance equipment is no longer to be feared but only laughed at as he tries to make a clone of himself out of his small grandson, the child of another daughter who is conveniently absent throughout the picture. Jack has had a cast made of this daughter’s left breast and straps it on himself in order to feed the boy her suctioned breast milk. Perhaps you can imagine how he looks so attired? At any rate, you will understand that the comedy here is not of the subtlest. In the previous film, it’s true, Jack was way over the top, but he was still recognizably human, mainly because he stood for every father just as Pam (Teri Polo) stood for every daughter and Greg/Gay for every suitor. In the sequel, Jack’s whole function is to be a mass of outrage — expressed by the famous De Niro slow burn — whipped up by the Focker parents, a couple of Jewish ex-hippies called Roz (Barbra Streisand) and Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) who are now, respectively, a sex therapist and a non-practising lawyer and house-husband.

Highlight of the film: Jack’s saying to his wife Dina (Blythe Danner) before their meeting: “A doctor and a lawyer! What’s there to worry about?”

One thing you’ve got to give Jack is that, however otherwise primitive and macho-wacho (to use Bernie’s terminology) he may be, there seems to be not a prejudiced bone in his body. Or rather, though he is full of prejudices of a slightly more socially acceptable kind, he is without any racial or religious prejudice. Of course the reason is clear. Ethnic or religious jokes, once a gold-mine for comedians, are now comedy killers. They have to be coded in some way, and one of the easiest ways is to make the WASPs conservative, sexually repressed and embarrassed by emotion while the Jews are liberal, earthy, emotionally expressive and life-affirming.We all know what that means! Naturally in Hollywood this makes for a very unfair contest. The superiority of the “let-it-all-hang-out” type to the “up-tight” type — the 1960s terminology is not accidental — goes without saying there.

Thus we are meant to feel sympathy for Bernie’s wish that his grandchild should turn out to be a “protestor” just like himself rather than Jack’s to make him into a prodigy. What is being protested doesn’t seem to matter. But how likely is it today that a father would reproach his son, as Bernie does Gaylord here, with having joined his prospective father-in law on a hunting trip? “You went duck hunting? You killed an innocent creature of the sky?” Gay says he only shot at the duck, but he is made to feel awkward only because Bernie is as much a caricature as Jack. And so, Hollywood being what it is, we know right from the start that Jack and Dina are going to be “Fockerized,” as their daughter already has been, by the shock of meeting Bernie and Roz.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find that this knowledge takes all the dramatic and comic tension out of the film. Even those who are still not tired of the comedy in seeing those whitebread, uptight Byrnses getting loosened up, however, might find that there is just too much of the Fockers — and Focker jokes — here. Jack for instance is introduced to Gaylord’s cousin Dominic, or Dom Focker, and his sons Randy and Orney at a party for, allegedly, 50 Fockers. “What could be better?” as Jack so rightly says. Moreover, there are too many in-jokes, depending on our knowledge of the earlier film. Roach even brings back the flight attendant (Kali Rocha) who so memorably provided the occasion for Greg’s gently simmering pressure cooker to blow in the earlier film. Only now she’s smiling and deferential, standing at the culmination of a sequence in which everything on Greg’s and Pam’s journey to Jack’s and Dina’s Long Island estate goes disturbingly right.

Without the memory of Meet the Parents, this joke would make no sense. As it is, it is not very funny, but it flatters us by treating us as being among the initiate. As we already know the characters, apart from the senior Fockers, we can take all the most interesting things about them for granted and concentrate instead on the inevitable slapstick, such as it is, of Jack’s Fockerization. In other words, the movie itself has become Fockerized, indulging itself in the easiest, broadest sort of humor and neglecting the more serious and astringent comedy of its predecessor. It is a disappointment.

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