Focking Wonderful

Streisand and Hoffman save a family -- and a movie too.

Meet the Fockers Now playing
Hoffman and Streisand do a bang-up job as two - over-the-top life-affirmers.
Hoffman and Streisand do a bang-up job as two over-the-top life-affirmers.
When your movie gets riotous laughter out of endless utterances of the word "Focker," it doesn't have to try very hard. So it's no surprise that much of Meet the Fockers, the inevitable sequel to the 2000 hit Meet the Parents, barely breaks a sweat. When in doubt, after all, just have someone refer to Ben Stiller's character by his real name (it's not Greg, but Gaylord Focker) or to uncle Dom Focker and cousins Randy Focker and Orny Focker. (And do not forget the soon-to-be-married name of Teri Polo's character, Pam Martha Focker.) This sequel's so bogged down with Focker references, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it had been written by a classroom of nine-year-old boys who just realized they could say a dirty word without getting in trouble. It's astonishing that someone hasn't yet scripted a movie starring characters Mike Hunt and Connie Lingus; the audiences that laughed themselves damp at a Fockers screening last week would eat that focking shit up.

But enough already. The joke's tired and worthy of being retired, like Robert De Niro's character, Jack Byrnes, the former Central Intelligence Agency profiler with an executioner's scowl and a corpse's sense of humor. In the first movie, a rickety Rube Goldberg contraption of slapstick and angst, De Niro was asked to torture Ben Stiller and relished the part, which allowed him to play a loving father and husband as he would any other brutish hooligan on his filmography; no actor alive looks so hateful even when asked to radiate a little paternal warmth. Five years ago, when De Niro began soaking his tough-guy shtick in the comedic baby pool with 1999's Analyze This and then Meet the Parents and the horrid The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, it was an amusing-enough gag -- the thug in clown makeup, milking broad laughs out of a tough-guy routine that had long ago worn out its ability to terrorize or even scare just a little. De Niro, parodied so brilliantly by Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, proved that the real thing doing the mocking was even more profoundly funny.

But in the sequel, which finds the Byrneses (including Blythe Danner as Jack's wife, Dina, wrapped up tight as a Connecticut Mommie Dearest) traveling to Florida to meet Greg's folks, De Niro is a downright drag. He's lifeless to the point of being inert, a first for so formidable a force, even if you include his rare turns in such modern-day melodramas as Stanley & Iris and Falling in Love more than a decade ago. Here he's given the task of babysitting (and bullying, with love) a precocious grandson -- the tow-headed toddler belongs to Pam's sister and her husband, not seen this time -- and reminding Greg about violating the "circle of trust." Jack has actually devolved since the first movie; the warmth he showed at the end of Meet the Parents has been covered in a heavy coating of frost.

And so it's left to Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, as Greg's parents, to warm up the picture, and they light it on fire. Indeed, they're having such a swell time as Roz and Bernie Focker that they seem to be in an entirely different movie -- a funnier one, a sexier and smarter one. She's a sex therapist, specializing in giving tips to elderly Jews in Miami's Coconut Grove enclave (including Shelly Berman in a welcome cameo); he's a former attorney who spends his spare time learning the Brazilian art of dance-fighting; together they're two very horny Hebrews unleashed upon stodgy, humorless New England WASPs, who find their species altogether frightening.

What makes Roz and Bernie such special characters is that they actually feel real and recognizable -- certainly more so than the automatons who birthed Pam, a nonentity who's become an afterthought. They can't keep their hands off each other, can't stop looking at each other, can't stop whispering to each other; they bound through the movie like party-crashers with a slight buzz in search of a bedroom in which they can shtup. Streisand, freed of the shackles of ego and self-righteousness that made her such a somber bore throughout the 1980s and '90s, hasn't been this daft and wonderful and sexy since 1972's What's Up, Doc?, Peter Bogdanovich's amped-up homage to Howard Hawks. She even looks as she did in the 1970s, her hair piled in soft ringlets and her body covered by a flowing silk shawl; you half expect Kris Kristofferson to climb out of her cleavage, which she casually exposes with not a little pride.

Hoffman hasn't been so manic, so untethered, so lovable since Ishtar, which, in this context, is offered as sincere praise. Bernie's the kind of dad who builds a shrine to his son: a Wall of Gaylord, upon which he's tacked up his sixth-place ribbons, his bar-mitzvah tallis, even his jock strap. It humiliates Greg and appalls Jack, who wonders how any man could celebrate such mediocrity, but it fills Bernie with profound pride; why, he wonders, can't a man love his kid just for trying? Roz and Bernie never met a thought they couldn't share with others, too, like every great Jewish parent. "I used to call Gaylord my young Jewish Marlon Brando," Bernie tells Jack as soon as they meet. "Can you believe I conceived him with one testicle?" The Fockers deserve their own sequel; just leave those other fuckers out.

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