"Meet the Parents"

On the commentary tracks of this too-polished hit comedy, actors and director give Robert De Niro a wide berth.

Published March 21, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"Meet the Parents"
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Owen Wilson
Universal Studios; widescreen anamorphic (1:1.85 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director commentary, cast commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, "On Location" featurette, DVD-ROM features

"Meet the Parents" is a perfect airplane movie. Its inoffensive, blandly entertaining premise -- boy meets girl's family; nervousness and hilarity ensue -- is essentially universal. The only thing the movie adds to a storyline about one of the worst parts of dating is an abnormally protective father, played by Robert De Niro, who used to be in the CIA.

The physical jokes are the premium stuff here, and most of them work as gags independent of the story itself. You could watch the movie without the $5 airplane headphones and still follow the humor. It's not a bad movie, but it has too much of that Hollywood gloss: It feels like it was made by committee, shot for potential trailer spots and tested until everything was just right. It's the movie version of genetically altered corn.

Ben Stiller is on the brink of asking his girlfriend (Teri Polo) to marry him. With engagement ring in tow, the two set out for her parents' house on Long Island the same weekend her sister is getting married. Stiller and De Niro collide before Stiller even crosses the threshold. The rest of the movie is a series of uncomfortable meals, clumsy disasters and easy jokes at the expense of Stiller. They work well enough, but the movie's marks (airport security, stony drugstore clerks, ex-boyfriends, Stiller's job as a male nurse) are easy targets. Remember, this is a film that doesn't want to offend anyone.

Least of all De Niro. The commentary tracks on the DVD are full of so much reverence for the great actor that you have to wonder how anyone got any work done. He did way more for this role than he needed to -- he hung out with former CIA guys and ignored Stiller on the set just to prepare -- but his presence on the commentary tracks silences nearly everyone else. It's pretty clear that he intimidated everyone, including the director. Roach will ask him an innocuous question -- does he think the beret worked? -- and De Niro will answer in a short, declarative sentence. No one will follow or challenge him, nor is there any real reason to.

The deleted scenes wouldn't have added much to the movie; they just further explain how anal De Niro's character is or that everyone in the family thinks Stiller is a mess. The outtakes are more fun, but they're really just decent behind-the-scenes footage with missed lines and De Niro chasing down cats. Both features are better than the "On Location" video, which is nothing more than all of the physical jokes in the movie intercut with interviews with cast members, each saying how fun it was to be on the set and how nice everyone was.

More interesting is the subtext of the two commentaries. Together, they explain exactly what goes into making a movie that will play well for airplane crowds. Roach often talks about his small army of writers, each brought in at different times for different joke-telling capabilities. He's also constantly talking about testing the movie with audiences (five times before it was even shown to a studio-sponsored test) and how he found out what people thought was funny. He even matter-of-factly points out the places he changed the movie to appease audiences. (The most significant add is a recurring overdub of characters shouting Stiller's last name: Focker.)

The only surprise in the commentaries comes at the end of the cast version, when Roach casually explains why he had to cut out part of the scene when Stiller freaks out on a plane and shouts, "Bomb!" That scene didn't play with the in-flight version. Apparently, the airlines didn't think it was funny.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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