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'Meet the Parents'

The parent trap: Stiller meets De Niro and gets in over his head in the comical 'Meet the Parents'

Friday, October 06, 2000

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

For a while, I couldn't decide whether Ben Stiller's character in "Meet the Parents" qualifies as a schlemiel or a schlimazel (hold the hasenpfeffer). It turns out he's both. Oy!

'Meet The Parents'

RATING: PG-13 for sexual content, drug references and language.

STARRING: Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller.

DIRECTOR: Jay Roach.

WEB SITE: www.meetthe

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars.


For the Yiddish-impaired, the schlemiel is a bumbler -- Woody Allen in "Take the Money and Run" trying to rob a bank with a note reading, "I have a gub." The schlimazel suffers from chronic bad luck -- Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News," a superior TV journalist whose audition for an anchor spot is doomed by enough flop sweat to drown a giraffe.

In other words, the schlemiel spills soup on the schlimazel. Some guys, however, can schmuts themselves without any help. In the moderately amusing "Meet the Parents," Stiller can't win for losing. He plays Greg, who wants to marry his pretty girlfriend, Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo). But first he must endure the ordeal of passing muster with her father, Jack, who is portrayed by Robert De Niro.

Well, how would you feel?

But there's more to it. As Jack keeps tolerantly pointing out, "Greg is Jewish." His prospective in-laws are so Gentile that Blythe Danner, high queen of slightly ditzy white-bread upper-crust movie moms, plays Jack's wife.

Greg feels like he's walked onto another planet where he doesn't know the language or the customs, seeking the approval of a man who wants to know if you're talking to HIM. Jack is pleasant but relentless, a control freak who says "please" when he orders you to leave. He'll tell you his secrets, but he'll make damn sure you keep them.

The early scenes between Greg and Jack depend on the nervous rhythm of embarrassed silence, which ensues after each of his attempts to ingratiate himself fall flat or prove misguided.

We can all relate to this universally awkward situation. But there's a difference between looking back at it all with a laugh and squirming uncomfortably in your seat, desperate to get beyond it. I had the same creepy reaction to the interminable body-function gags at the beginning of the first "Austin Powers" movie -- which, like "Meet the Parents," was directed by Jay Roach.

As Greg's inner schlemiel takes over, sight gags are sure to follow. We know exactly what's going to happen once Greg decides to pop the cork on a champagne bottle in the same room as an urn containing the ashes of Jack's mother and a cat that needs to go outside. (If you can't figure it out, just watch the TV commercial give everything away.)

But Roach sets up some of Greg's other misadventures more subtly. We don't know what kind of disaster lies in store when Greg chases the aforementioned cat onto the roof of the Byrnes house, but Roach makes sure all the elements are in place.

Screenwriters Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg pile on the indignities to their logical conclusion, which must give way to a somewhat forced happy ending.

But for all the slapstick it contains (and the ultimately tiresome chortling over Greg's almost vulgar last name), "Meet the Parents" works chiefly because of the interaction between the quietly overbearing De Niro and the nervously overcompensating Stiller, who is carving out a comic niche for himself as the frustrated, often obnoxious worrywart who tends to get in over his head.

Think of the young rabbi in "Keeping the Faith," the manipulating ex-boyfriend in "Black and White," the superhero Mr. Furious in "Mystery Men," the guy who can't shut up during sex in "Your Friends and Neighbors" and, of course, the zipper-impaired gent from "There's Something About Mary."

In "Meet the Parents," he holds his own with De Niro -- pretty good for a schlemiel OR a schlimazel.

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