There is a moment in Little Fockers where Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro square off. It’s a brief reminder of where they’ve been, but also underscores where they are. It’s possible to imagine the tension ratcheting up and ending in one of those classic scenes of sudden startling violence for which they are best known.
Of course that doesn’t happen. In this third entry in the Meet the Parents franchise, Keitel has a bizarrely incongruous cameo as a contractor fixing up Greg Focker’s (Ben Stiller) new house. De Niro is reprising his role as Jack, Greg’s disapproving father-in-law. Throughout his few scenes, Keitel seems to be forcing a cheeriness that makes you believe he wants to hurt someone.
Watching this strange reunion of Keitel and De Niro, who both had breakout roles in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, makes you wish that they had found another project for this purpose. Keitel is ready for a comeback; he’s been doing TV. Like his contemporaries Mickey Rourke and Joe Pesci, Keitel is one of those scarily good actors who fades in and out of our movie-watching consciousness and makes a habit of roaring back when least expected.
The same cannot be said for De Niro. He remains a legend, regularly recalled as the “greatest actor of our time” whenever his name comes up. The designation is, of course, well earned. No one else gave us as many compelling performances in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s, with the possible exception of Meryl Streep. And yet, in the last 15 years, since Heat and Casino, De Niro has not given a De Niro caliber performance. While Streep is still finding roles that showcase her talents (Doubt, Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated), De Niro been playing a comedic caricature of himself in franchises (Meet the Parents and Analyze This). Depressing as it may be, wondering why De Niro can’t find another Raging Bull or even a Cop Land is less depressing than thinking about Little Fockers.
The third of the Parents movies is a stitched-together trifle. It continues — or more accurately, recycles — the war of wills between Greg and Jack without adding to what came before. The feud began memorably in Meet the Parents, which took the universal mistrust between in-laws and played it out through a series of increasingly painful, humiliating, and very funny set pieces where everything went wrong for Greg.
The first sequel, Meet the Fockers, which introduced Greg’s parents, Roz (Barbra Streisand) and Bernie (Dustin Hoffman), already showed signs of wear for the concept. But it was redeemed to some extent because Streisand, Hoffman, and De Niro seemed to be having way too much fun with the material.
No one is having fun in Little Fockers. It trots out the same jokes, already stale in the previous film. How many times do we need to be reminded that Fockers sounds like a swear word? Is it really so funny that Greg is a male nurse? Was it ever? And what to make of the fact that now he’s quite successful, running the nursing department at a prominent hospital? No matter. Little Fockers seems compelled to roll these gags out again and again, either due to nostalgia or reflex.
The first movie worked because Jack intensified Greg’s insecurities; the father-in-law was a catalyst, but it was Greg’s own stupidity that almost led him to lose Pam (Teri Polo). The introduction of the titular children seems fertile ground to renew the men’s dynamic. In-laws meddling in the already complicated task of parenting could easily push Greg to the brink once more.
But Little Fockers isn’t interested in following that obvious thread. Instead, Jack is neutered upfront. No one takes him seriously anymore. A former CIA agent, he tries to get information from his old contacts and is told that he no longer has clearance. They tell him to use Google, and Jack seems not to know what the search engine is. Really? The film might as well have stamped “doddering old fool” on his forehead. This defeats his function, at least as it’s been set in the previous movies, setting him in a new relationship with Greg, who’s more confident now. The inversion of the two main roles pretty much leaches all the comedy out of the original premise.
In lieu of conflict, Little Fockers goes for star cameos. Streisand and Hoffman get to mug for the camera again, and those moments are among the funniest in the movie. Laura Dern plays the head of an exclusive pre-school. Jessica Alba (as a drug rep) and Owen Wilson both show up as supposed threats to Greg’s marriage who are completely non-threatening.
De Niro doesn’t have the luxury of writing this off as a cameo. Jack is struggling, not only with Greg, but also with himself: he has heart problems, he’s clearly lost a step, he needs drugs to get it up for his wife. Little Fockers could have been a poignant exploration of growing old and generational conflict. But it isn’t.
Which brings us back to wishing we were watching a different movie. A vehicle where De Niro and Keitel go toe to toe again. Calling Mr. Scorsese.