The biggest gag in "Meet the Fockers," Jay Roach's sequel to the hyperkinetically paranoid "Meet the Parents," is embedded in its title -- a remnant of the old "sounds like a bad word but isn't" routine.
Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) has managed to reach some kind of accord with Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro), the father of his fiancée, Pam (Teri Polo). Now all he has to do is introduce his uptight, by-the-book, former-CIA-operative future father-in-law to his own parents, Bernie and Roz Focker (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand).
Bernie is a laid-back lawyer who, instead of working, now shuffles around the couple's cluttered but airy Cocoanut Grove cottage. Roz is a sex therapist who caters to senior citizens. What on earth, poor Greg wonders, will Jack and Dina Byrnes (once again, Dina is played by the luminous Blythe Danner) think of his less-than-staid parents?
You probably already know the answer. Even so, "Meet the Fockers" could have been much funnier than it is. From the minute Jack, Dina, Pam and Greg, along with Jack and Dina's toddler grandson, Little Jack (played by Spencer Pickren and Bradley Pickren), roll up in their lavish mobile home -- big Jack is such a control freak he likes to take his perfectly appointed bathroom with him wherever he goes -- you can guess just about everything that's going to happen. (And if you would like to at least pretend to be surprised, stop reading now.) Roz and Bernie will be so open about their sex life that Jack will be appalled and shocked. At some point Greg is going to get stuck babysitting, and on his watch, little Jack will find his way into a heap of trouble. (It is pretty funny when the tot gets ahold of the TV remote and happens to flick on "Scarface" just in time to catch the "Say hello to my little fren'" moment.) Bernie will be so openly emotional that Jack will think he's gay, or at least just very weird. And Roz will recognize that Dina and Jack's sex life is lousy; she'll end up saving the day by giving them a few pointers.
And at some point, yes, Jack's beloved Persian cat will use the toilet, flushing delicately when he's done. Roach has a knack for ridiculous comedies. His Austin Powers pictures are embarrassingly enjoyable, and "Meet the Parents" felt original and sharp. But the harder "Meet the Fockers" tries to make us laugh, the more tired and recycled it seems. (The script is by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg.) Stiller is immensely talented, but he needs to throw off some of the self-conscious edginess he's developed over the past few years. De Niro, who has brought a surprisingly light touch to some of the smaller roles he's played in the past decade or so, is stiff and tiresome here -- his hard-ass routine has worn thin by the end of the movie's opening scene.
If there's any reason to bother with "Meet the Fockers," it's to see Hoffman and Streisand as the kind of parents who are so open and loving that they can't help embarrassing their kid. Hoffman gives a relaxed, affectionate performance, playing a dad who loves his son so much he doesn't know when to shut up. Beaming with pride, he says of Greg, "Do you believe I conceived him with just one testicle? Imagine what he would have looked like if I'd had two!"
And Streisand is a lovely, warm presence here. She's one of those rare actresses who looks youthful precisely because she's not afraid to look her age. Her figure is softly defined; her face has luscious contours, instead of the tight, chiseled look that so many actresses seem to strive for when they hit their 50s. And at a time when movies strive to represent a panoply of ethnicities and religions, all blended together so the distinctions between us all are safely diminished, Streisand is still refreshingly true to her roots.
There's no doubt that Streisand is playing a stereotype, but she always lets you see there's a person behind it all. When she learns that Greg once went duck hunting with Jack, her disapproval is stern and instinctive: "Our people don't shoot ducks." And she brings a delicate touch to a scene in which, after she and Dina have bonded over some girl talk, she massages Dina's earlobes as a way of reminding her that she's not an old married lady but a lovely, erotic woman. It's a small but nicely played moment between two fine actresses whom we don't get to see as often as we'd like. If "Meet the Fockers" is the thing that brings them together, it can't be all bad.