Haven't We Met?
On its surface, Meet the Parents seems to be your basic romantic comedy, concerning stock misadventures along the road to marriage. Without fail, the central couple must overcome some enormous hurdle that threatens to doom their happily-ever-after before it even begins.
When Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and yes, there is a never ending stream of puns on his last name goes down on bended knee to propose to girlfriend Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), he is suddenly derailed by a cell phone call: Pam’s sister Debbie (Nicole DeHuff) has just gotten engaged herself and stolen Greg’s thunder. To make matters worse, Debbie’s new fiancee, Dr. Bob (Tom McCarthy), has asked Debbie’s old-fashioned father Jack (a refreshingly silly Robert DeNiro) for his permission to marry. When Greg learns this, he pockets his own diamond before Pam realizes what he’s up to and they head off for Debbie’s wedding and his own introduction to Pam’s parents.
Since our Greg is Ben Stiller, we can rest assured that what follows will include many goofy faux pas, half-baked schemes, and cringe-inducing moments. And since Meet the Parents is a marriage comedy, we can also be reasonably certain that regardless of any and all disasters, it will end as most of them do: happily. Thank goodness, then, that screenwriters Greg Gilenna and Mary Ruth Clarke, along with director Jay Roach (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), don’t waste our time trying to convince us that the plot is anything fresh. They wisely let that storyline develop as we know it will. Except for one thing: the primary couple is DeNiro and Stiller.
A story about men, Meet the Parents tackles issues of male identity and economics, anxieties and proprietary attitudes, especially towards women. This isn’t necessarily new news. God knows the pissing match has served as the focus of countless films over the years. The stroke of genius here (personally, I don’t think that’s too strong a word but maybe I’m just a little partial to both of the leading men) is the DeNiro/Stiller couple, because they are extremely funny. Stiller’s performance is much like his others (in Something About Mary and Reality Bites): he’s a bumbling, semi-adorable borderline loser. DeNiro is the real pleasure to watch. He is, ultimately, a parody of his own tough-guy image, sort of a fatherly Travis Bickle (if such a thing is imaginable), slightly less freaky than he was as Fearless Leader.
It’s immediately apparent when Greg and Pam arrive at the Byrnes’ home that Pam is daddy’s little girl: Jack showers her with hugs and kisses, referring to her as his Pam-cake. Her mother Dina (the fabulous Blythe Danner, woefully underutilized here) emerges from the house looking very Ann Taylor, but with oven mitts, to join in the cooing over her daughter. Greg watches self-consciously from a few steps back, left out of this familial moment and looking slightly grossed out by the whole exchange. Realizing that he’s going to have a rough time meeting Jack’s standards as a future son-in-law, Greg overcompensates in his efforts to win him over. Ignoring Pam’s warning that humor is “completely wasted” on her parents, Greg unleashes his dry neurotic wit, leaving Pam embarrassed and her parents confused.
Though we know he is worthy of Pam, Greg consistently falls short in Jack’s eyes. His job as a nurse fails to impress anyone except Pam and even seems to make him a little sexually ambiguous from Jack’s perspective. He makes every klutzy move he possibly can and tries to back out of trouble with all the subtlety and success of an I Love Lucy episode. He loses Jack’s cat, Mr. Jinx, then desperately scrounges up a near look-alike from the pound and spray-paints it to look like Jinx. Showing off in a water volleyball game to counter the chiding from his teammates calling him Florence Nightingale, he spikes the ball into Debbie’s face, breaking her nose two days before her wedding. He overflows the septic tank. He blows up the gazebo. Worst of all, he lies to Jack.
This is especially bad because, as it turns out, Daddy Byrnes is an ex-CIA agent specializing in psychological warfare. When he busts Greg in a few harmless lies, he’s furious (there are no shades of gray for Jack Byrnes) and makes it his mission to get his Pam-cake away from Greg. The subsequent struggle between Jack and Greg is the ground for most of the film’s humor, as well as where Meet the Parents speaks to such male-centered topics mentioned above. For example, everyone Greg meets that weekend asks him right away what he does for a living. Dr. Bob’s dad, Dr. Larry (James Rebhorn), suggests that he wasn’t industrious enough to go for the MD and Pam’s ex-fiancee Kevin (Owen Wilson, here, as always, the perfect snake) patronizes Greg, wishing that he had the time “to give a little something back.” Alas, Kevin’s too busy making millions on Wall Street. At one family breakfast, Greg is asked why he chose nursing. When he starts his explanation, he seems relieved to be able to speak with authority on a topic, and therefore we see a glimmer of confidence in him. Unfortunately, no one is particularly interested in what he has to say and they all turn away and start talking over him. He stops mid-sentence and returns to being the insecure mess he’s been ever since he arrived at the Byrnes’.
The irony of Jack’s determination to prove Greg worthless in such a way that undermines Greg’s masculinity is that Jack is feeling impotent himself. His cover story is that he’s a florist (not a career choice one would expect from someone so insistent on outward displays of manhood). Furthermore, although he was once CIA, he was forced into retirement for health reasons, something that someone like Jack would naturally conceive of as weakness of character and decidedly un-manly. He now spends his days hanging around the house with the Donna Reed-ish Dina and training Jinxy the Cat to use the toilet rather than the litter box.
It’s this insecurity surrounding work, standing for both economic and provider status, that is one motivating factor behind Jack’s dislike for Greg. This same anxiety fuels Greg’s tendency to lie, as he tries to achieve some level of respect in Jack’s eyes, and by extension, Pam’s. This Jack/Pam continuum causes the most obvious tension between Jack and Greg, but it is perversely (if predictably) proprietary, since it is over Pam. While none of the women in this film ever exceeds prop status, Pam is nothing more than the prize for the winner. Her father never asks her what she wants, and in fact ignores her request that he “be nice to this one.” Likewise, Greg never bothers to talk to this woman he supposedly loves and respects enough to want to marry, but instead participates in endless ridiculous feats of manhood in some vain quest to prove himself, not to her, but to her father.
As I said earlier, Meet the Parents ends as we know it will all along, with a proposal and marriage. Eventually, Jack sees that he needs to put Pam’s happiness ahead of his own pride (thanks to Dina finally speaking up) and chases the outcast Greg down to offer a less-than-conventional proposal of his own. Holding Greg’s wrists across the table so he can feel whether Greg’s pulse indicates he’s lying, Jack asks him a series of questions, culminating with “Will you be my son-in-law?” They return to the house where Greg sits with Dina and Jack at Debbie’s wedding, part of the family at last. This reminded me of one of my first film classes, in which we studied the “firm establishment of the heterosexual couple” that closes so many mainstream Hollywood films. While Meet the Parents gives us that (Debbie-and-Dr. Bob, Pam-and-Greg), it is far more interesting, and entertaining, to see the establishment of the same-sex “couple” at the heart of the film: Greg and Jack.