Meet the Parents and Flirting with Disaster (review)

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The Rise and Fall of Ben Stiller

He used to be an intelligent comic actor with a talent for sublime, deadpan satire — see Zero Effect. But he was too smart for his own good — his self-titled comedy series, The Ben Stiller Show, couldn’t last more than a handful of episodes on the wasteland of network television. So these days, he has transformed himself into a punching-bag straight man with the apparent goal of seeing how far the human body can be abused and the human spirit humiliated on film. He has, sadly, been a huge success with audiences in this effort, and his new movie is sure to further this sorry reputation even further.
There’s something about dad
Stiller’s public campaign of personal and professional self-abasement, which began in earnest with There’s Something About Mary, continues in Meet the Parents, an unfathomably awful film that will undoubtedly be a smash hit. “Show me a man who’s gentle and kind / And I’ll show you a loser,” go the lyrics to the insipid little tune that opens the film, and that tells you everything you need to know about Parents, which mines embarrassment for its central character from his mere existence as a human being and expects its audience to be entertained by this. Which it probably will be.

Greg (Ben Stiller: Mystery Men) can’t ask his girlfriend, Pam (Teri Polo), to marry him until he consults with her father. So they fly off from Chicago to Long Island so Greg can finally meet her parents… and so they can attend Pam’s sister’s wedding. Greg and Pam have obviously been dating a while and are actually living together, but does he know the first thing about her parents? Nope. He can’t, because we need to be notified of all the paranoid, neurotic, bordering-on-psychotic quirks of her father, Jack (Robert De Niro: The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Analyze This), and the easiest, though most ridiculous, way to do that is to have Pam spring everything on Greg as they’re actually standing in her parents’ driveway. Dad thinks smoking is a sign of weakness? It’s not enough for Greg to merely put the pack of cigarettes in his pocket, because Dad will go through his stuff, Pam says without the slightest hint that there’s anything abnormal about that. Leave them in the car? No good: Dad will search their car. (What Pam does to hide the smokes defies logic, but this isn’t even the first in a long string of logic-defying plot contrivances.)

This is the point at which a normal human being, frightened for his life, exits the scene, but Greg can’t do that because he’s stuck in this stupid movie, and because he’s in love with Pam (for no reason we can see — Stiller and Polo have zero chemistry together) and needs to make nice with his future in-laws — plus, as a kind and gentle man, he’s a loser, so what else would you expect him to do? Anything that he can possibly do or say wrong, he will, though through no fault of his own. His extremely thoughtful and expensive gift to Jack (a bribe he knows he needs to offer to get in Jack’s good graces) falls flat. No one onscreen will be able to say his surname — Focker — without director Jay Roach (Mystery, Alaska, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) attempting to make you laugh at the tediously obvious juvenile mishearing of the name. Greg’s error in not being born a wealthy White Anglo-Saxon Protestant will be a motherlode of asinine “comedy.” And best of all, on the humiliation scale: Greg is a nurse. Pam’s sister snags a doctor, and poor old Pam has to make do with a wimpy nurse. Greg’s degradation is complete, and he can do nothing to extricate himself.

How deeply and horrendously can one man be belittled? How many jokes can be proferred at the expense of defenseless household pets that There’s Something About Mary didn’t cover? How absurdly high can four — count ’em — screenwriters raise the obstacles to romance before you just have to throw your hands up in disgust? (There’s no such thing as too many cooks in Hollywood.) How horrible, dishonest, and mistrustful can a family be before someone contemplating joining is scared off?

More people will see Meet the Parents in its first weekend of release than have probably ever seen The Ben Stiller Show. That makes me very sad for Ben.

Meet the Parents, the prequel
Twasn’t always so for Ben. In fact, you need only go back to 1996 to find another Stiller film that covers much of the same ground as Meet the Parents, only better, smarter, and actually funny. No one saw Flirting with Disaster either.

Mel Coplin (Stiller), adopted as a child, is obsessed with learning the truth about his biological parents — so consumed is he with this identity crisis, in fact, that he can’t settle on a name for his 4-month-old son until he discovers his roots. So when the agency that handled his adoption comes up with his mother’s name, he and his wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette: Bringing Out the Dead, Stigmata), fly from New York to San Diego to meet her. Along for the ride is Tina (Téa Leoni: Deep Impact), a psychology doctorate candidate who is studying the psychological impact of reunions between adoptees and parents who gave up their babies.

David O. Russell (Three Kings) wrote and directed this gem a comedy, and he juggles a cast of disparate characters assuredly, navigating them through a road movie that moves from the East Coast to the West, then on to snowy Michigan and the deserts of New Mexico as Mel’s parental quest hits some snags. With observant, biting humor that never needs to resort to toilet jokes or sitcomish buffoonery, Russell uses Mel’s understandable neurosis to explore issues of personal identity and vulnerability, hangups about sex, what makes a family a family, the spontaneity and flexibility that keep romantic relationships fresh, and the threats to marital fidelity and security that lurk everywhere.

And Stiller gets to portray — and portray well — a character who remains human; Russell has no need to turn Mel into a cartoon or to abuse him in order to make us sympathize with him. Mel is not a perfect person, but one with realistic worries and complexities that make him both endearing and a tad annoying at times, just like the real people we care about can make us feel. And the other characters, covering the spectrum of personality types, drive Flirting with Disaster, reacting as real people do, in sometimes unpredictable but always believable ways. From Mel and Nancy — who frets that her husband no longer finds her post-baby body attractive — to Mel’s adoptive parents (Mary Tyler Moore: Ordinary People, and George Segal), who are afraid of losing their son, to the unlikely pair of ATF agents who join Mel’s quest, these are interesting people to spend time with, and not merely pawns on a director’s chess board as they would be in a film like Meet the Parents. And they prove the point Russell is aiming for with his film: that the idea of family can unite people who would otherwise hate or at least be indifferent to one another.

I understand the desire for actors like Stiller to make good money for their work, and I’m sure that’s what he has done thanks to movies like Meet the Parents and There’s Something About Mary. But I hope he’ll allow the resultant financial security to set him free to make more low-budget wonders like Flirting with Disaster and Zero Effect. We may not be the largest group of his fans, we lovers of his quirky little films, but we’re still here.

[reader comments on this review]

Meet the Parents
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug references and language
official site | IMDB

Flirting with Disaster
veiwed at home on a small screen
rated R

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