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Friday, October 6, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Underdone `Meet'

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review

XX "Meet the Parents," with Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo, Owen Wilson. Directed by Jay Roach, from a screenplay by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg, based on a story by Greg Glienna and Mary Ruth Clarke. 108 minutes. Several theaters. "PG-13" - Parental guidance strongly advised because of drug references, sexual content and language.

A friend of mine once said of the old "I Love Lucy" show: "It never made me laugh; it just made me anxious."

This pretty much sums up my feelings on the new Ben Stiller/Robert De Niro comedy, "Meet the Parents."

"Parents" is "Lucy" redux. It's the prom night scene from "There's Something About Mary" stretched out over an entire movie - just not as funny.

Ben Stiller plays Greg Focker, a Chicago nurse in love with elementary-school teacher Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), and a man buffeted by circumstances. An elaborate marriage proposal, for example, utilizing the kids in her classroom, goes for naught when Pam receives a cell-phone call from her sister, who has just become engaged to her boyfriend.

This boyfriend seemingly did everything right. He's a doctor, for one, rather than a mere nurse, and he first asked the father, Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro), for his daughter's hand. When Greg and Pam fly in for the sister's wedding, Greg is determined to do likewise.

Future fathers-in-law are scary enough, of course, without reminding us of Travis Bickle (from "Taxi Driver") and Jake La Motta ("Raging Bull"). The casting of De Niro, in other words, is itself a gag, similar to the comedy in "Analyze This," in which De Niro, with merely a perplexed or upset wrinkle of his brow, stole the film from Billy Crystal.

But De Niro's not funny here. Creepy is a better word.

It's a one-joke movie: Greg is eager to please, Jack Byrnes is hard to please, and as Greg tries to please more, disaster ensues. Both men, meanwhile, hide secrets from each other.

Pam has yet to tell her parents that she and Greg are living together - so Greg starts off by concealing a lie.

As he is introduced to the family cat, Pam blurts out that Greg prefers dogs. Here we get De Niro's famous wrinkled brow. "You prefer an emotionally shallow animal?" he asks, perplexed.

Then the "Lucy" show begins. As soon as someone points out an expensive vase on the mantle, you know it's going to get broken. Two minutes later, you know how it's going to get broken. To the filmmaker's credit, they add an extra, outrageous touch which almost redeems the scene - but not quite.

In a game of pool volleyball, Greg is bullied into playing harder - and winds up spiking the ball into the bride-to-be's face. The septic tank overflows (because Greg flushed an off-limits toilet?) and the back yard, the site for the wedding, overflows with human waste. The more Greg tries to fit in, the more he ostracizes himself. His good intentions substitute for Lucy's ambition as recipe for disaster.

At times this feels like an uncommented-upon microcosm of assimilation: Stiller as dark-haired Jew trying to get along in a blonde-haired WASP world, with De Niro acting as belligerent guard dog to keep him at bay.

Yet the two WASP families - the Byrnes and their future in-laws, the Banks - are filled with such obtuse and mean-spirited yahoos you wonder if it's all worth it. More important, is Greg strong enough for this world?

One of the film's funniest lines is from the opening song by Randy Newman, in which angelic female voices sing, "Show me a man who's gentle and kind . . . and I'll show you a loser." Greg is that loser. Even the requisite happy ending is predicated upon Jack Byrnes becoming softer rather than Greg Focker becoming tougher. Greg remains a man acted upon rather than acting.

None of which would have mattered, of course, if the film were only funnier. But it's not. The biggest running gag, for example, is Greg's surname. Isn't it a funny name? It's almost like a cuss-word. That's so funny. Let's see how many times, and how many ways, we can make a joke out of Greg's funny, funny surname.

If this is your idea of comedy, then you'll probably like "Meet the Parents."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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