#ThrowbackThursday – Meet the Parents

Original US release date: October 6, 2000
Production budget: $55,000,000
Worldwide gross: $330,444,045

There are certain films that just tap into the public zeitgeist in a way that few other films do.  It seems like everyone has seen these films.  They can quote them.  They can immediately pinpoint their favorite scene or moment.  And the mere mention of those films seems to always bring an immediate smile to people’s faces.  Meet the Parents is one of those films.

In late 2000, one couldn’t open their eyes in the morning without hearing some sort of reference to the polygraph scene.  Or the urn.  Or my personal favorite line, “You a pothead, Focker?”  And, sixteen years later, Meet the Parents is still firmly entrenched in the public consciousness.  Even the textbook I use to teach Statistics from prominently features that polygraph scene and then constructs a probability question around it.  Though it later spawned two much-less-beloved sequels (I personally thought Little Fockers was okay but I loathed Meet the Fockers), Meet the Parents remains an American comedy favorite in the minds of many.  Does it hold up or is it all just nostalgia?

First of all, it had been quite a while since I had seen this movie and I had forgotten much of the second half.  So, rediscovering it was a lot of fun.  The entire cast is great but Ben Stiller (Greg Focker) and Robert DeNiro (Jack Byrnes) are both absolutely at home in their respective roles and deliver on every level.  Both of them possess the exact subtleties and perfect delivery necessary to get the laughs while also retaining the conviction required to make their characters believable.  DeNiro, in particular, manages to project an all-encompassing, Deadpool-like earnestness that results in laughs when they’re least-expected.

One specific aspect of the film that I found noteworthy is the increased social relevance.  Pretty much everyone is familiar with the film’s basic conceit of boy-meets-girl’s-parents.  But the underlying conflict derives from their opposing worldviews.  Greg is a more modern, free-thinking man whereas his girlfriend Pam’s father Jack is an ultra-conservative with narrow-minded views of who Greg is and isn’t allowed to be in order to not only be good enough for his daughter but also to be a “real” man.  This dichotomy is more topical than ever these days, and it was totally lost on me until this viewing, whether it was because that sort of thing wasn’t as close to the surface when I last saw the film or because I simply wasn’t as insightful.

But what truly makes Meet the Parents work is its restraint.  The humor is elevated and exacerbated juuuuuust enough for it to be a little out there but it’s also not impossible to buy into.  Some of the events may be unlikely to occur as they play out in the film, but none of them are impossible.  The dialogue sounds exactly like the worst conversations that we’ve all had at some point in our lives when we’re trying to present ourselves a certain way and it just isn’t working.  It’s all feasible and it’s all relatable and – best of all – it’s all happening to somebody who isn’t us.  The audience gets to view these moments from the outside and see how funny these things actually are when they’re happening to someone else.  And maybe that taught a few people to laugh at themselves a little more, along the way.

Regardless, one would be hard-pressed to not laugh at something.  The dinner scene is probably one of the all-time great film comedy pieces as poor Greg tries so hard to be who these people – especially Jack – want him to be.  The forced conversation during the trip to the store plays like almost every conversation I’ve ever had upon meeting somebody new.  And a supremely excellent routine involving boarding an airplane just reinforces why this film remains so revered to this day.  There are a few instances of exaggerated slapstick and I’m tempted to say those fall flat.  But I also know that I always say that slapstick falls flat because I simply don’t care for it.  I suspect that if slapstick is your thing, you’ll enjoy those parts just fine.  But my thing is subtle, smart dialogue along with situational humor and Meet the Parents knocks those out of the park at every single at-bat.

I’m glad I re-watched this one for the column.  I was surprised by how many times I laughed out loud and I had completely forgotten how perfect both Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro are in their roles.  The entire film captures our worst fears come true and it’s hard not to feel for all involved as everybody’s hearts are in the right place.  Ultimately, though, the film follows through on its comedic premise, never getting so serious as to become a downer, and delivering a steady stream of laughs throughout the entire length of the film.  It would have been fantastic if the series had continued to be of this quality in the subsequent follow-ups, but the original Meet the Parents remains a comedy classic that somehow has only increased in pertinence since its release in 2000.

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