Smile, you’re on daddy’s cameras

Meet The Parents

It’s an experience that most people have had to endure at some time or other: getting through the initial introduction to the parents of their loved one. But Greg (Ben Stiller) has to overcome more than a few obstacles and biases when it comes to winning the affections of Pam’s father, Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro).

Jack loves his daughter and has clearly scared off her beaus before: "Try to be nice to this one," Pam pleads. "I kind of like him." But that’s not all. Greg will soon discover that Jack is an ex-CIA agent with ways of making people feel uncomfortable – he’s not merely a harmless florist who likes exotic flowers. (Which makes Greg’s very thoughtful present of a rare orchid rather redundant.)

The movie kicks off with a lovely scene: Greg’s about to propose to Pam (Teri Polo) by getting her kindergarten class to hold up the question from their classroom window. But his romantic plan is interrupted by a phonecall from Pam’s sister, who announces her hasty upcoming wedding instead.

So there’s no proposal. Instead, the wedding weekend gives Greg the chance to finally meet Pam’s parents. On arrival he learns that she still hasn’t told her parents that they’re living together, and that he’s not allowed to smoke.

Pam’s childhood home lies in a typical American upper-middle class neighborhood. Russet-colored leaves and huge houses suggest a wealth that Greg’s never going to achieve himself, particularly on his nurse’s salary. "So Greg," says Jack, during their introductory chat. "There’s not a lot of men in your profession."

You can feel the tension building already, and that director Jay Roach manages to sustain that tension and very gradually intensify it for more than the next hour is one of the movie’s pleasures.

Greg finds himself blurting out irretrievable sentences and desperately trying to cover his tracks, all beneath the fantastic and frightening scowl of Robert De Niro – and that’s before Pam tells him about her father’s real CIA background.

Pam’s sister and her fiance arrive, but their presence only serves to make Greg look and feel like more of an outsider. That Greg manages to give the bride-to-be a black eye, burns a major wedding present and loses the family’s precious cat allow there to be plenty of good lines as Greg’s hopes of being loved – let alone liked – plummet.

A clever but minor subplot involves Greg stalking Jack as he seemingly participates in some sort of covert operation involving Thailand. Ex-CIA? It seems to Greg as if he’s still involved in something undercover. Thai audiences will particularly appreciate the scene with Robert De Niro actually speaking Thai on the phone.

This is really likeable mainstream comedy that doesn’t resort to toilet jokes – save the scene where a car gets stuck in the overflowing sewage – or underestimate its audience’s intelligence. There might the occasional groan as Greg spins himself deeper into the vortex of lies he’s created, but overall this is a script that provides well for its actors.

And the actors return the complement. Stiller plays the nice-guy-hardly-done-by to garner as much empathy as possible, but it’s really Robert De Niro who steals many of their scenes together with his withering looks of scepticism and disbelief. Pam’s role is quite undemanding, while her mother (Blythe Danner) plays the conciliatory matriarch with great vagueness. Indeed this is probably the type of family and neighborhood where valium would help. Pam’s ex-boyfriend Kevin, the seemingly ubiquitous Owen Wilson, also puts in a notable performance with his dulcet voice and upper-class ways.

The movie winds its way towards a reasonably predictable resolution, but it’s topped off with some very funny scenes of Greg taking his revenge on Jack’s secret cameras. Not only will you walk out of this film feeling good, you’ll walk out with a genuine smile on your face.

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