movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 2000 Warner Bros. & Bel-Air Pictures, LLC. All rights reserved.)

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Meet the Parents
Director Jay Roach's reputation has been built through his collaborations with Mike Myers. The Austin Powers movies were filled with comedy that consciously strained for laughs. In these films, the process of straining for laughs became the joke. But unlike the Farrelly brothers, for example, who have worked exclusively within this hyperbolic form of comedy (e.g. There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber), Jay Roach has shown an interest in more conventional storytelling, as evidenced by last year's relatively sweet Mystery, Alaska.

In his newest film, Pay It Forward, Roach works in a long-established variety of domestic comedy exemplified by movies such as Father of the Bride (both the Spencer Tracy and the Steve Martin versions), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), and A Wedding (Altman, 1978). But Roach injects enough exaggeration to keep us off guard. Unlike the Austin Power movies, where just about anything could happen and nothing was sacred or off limits, Pay It Forward utilizes a firmer grasp on reality. Much of the comedy results from how familiar we all are with the movie's plot and characters. Through this familiarity, we can better appreciate the wonderfully awkward situations that confront Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) when he accompanies his girlfriend (Teri Polo) on a trip home to meet her parents (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner).

At the same time, Roach hasn't completely eschewed the outlandish, the absurd, or the grotesque. Pay It Forward contains several elaborate slapstick set pieces that work like Rube Goldberg mouse traps. Seemingly insignificant acts, such as a tossed lit cigarette or a popped champagne cork, set off intricate chains of events that culminate in nothing less than complete chaos. Roach orchestrates these sequences like a master, eliciting such overpowering bursts of laughter from the audience that it's frequently difficult to hear the ensuing dialogue. To be sure, Meets the Parents is uproariously funny. It's one of the funniest movies of the past decade.

Robert De Niro has certainly appeared in comedies before, with his role as a bounty hunter in Midnight Run (1988) being arguably his finest comedic performance; however, his performance as a protective father in Pay It Forward is arguably the funniest of his career. Playing a father who fears losing his daughters, De Niro lords over his home like a king. He's used to getting his way, but he isn't just a martinet. He truly cares for his daughters and wants the best for them. Trouble is, no one can meet his impossibly high standards.

Ben Stiller plays the boyfriend. He's capable of being both likable and wimpish. Even when he's being petty, it's easy to sympathize with him. He's sensitive and considerate, yet he's also more than a little defensive about his profession in nursing. He takes most of the ribbing without any complaints, but inside he's stewing and anxious for the opportunity to prove himself.

De Niro and Stiller face off in the movie's central scene--where De Niro hooks up Stiller to a lie detecting machine and regales him with questions such as "Have you ever watched a pornographic movie?"

If Pay It Forward has a weakness, it's an over-compulsion to tie up all the plot strands and make everything work out for the best. In the process, the movie loses its edge and becomes ordinary and predictable. But through most of the its running time, Pay It Forward is surprising and unconventional. This is one of the finest comedies of the past year.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]