'Meet the Parents' Finds Success by Marrying Classic Themes to Modern Tastes

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

There are some experiences so horrendous--yet so commonplace--that they strikeuniversal chords. Living through them may be a pain, but remembering them afterward can raise both shivers and rueful chuckles, a sense that you've joined some vast club with a secret worldwide membership.

One of those bonding experiences, apparently, is this: going home for the first time with your girlfriend or boyfriend to meet the unknown and possibly unsympathetic people who may wind up as your in-laws. For four weeks, the Robert De Niro-Ben Stiller nightmare comedy "Meet the Parents"--which deals with just that situation--topped Variety's box-office charts, surpassing $100 million in less than 24 days. (It was finally toppled this weekend by "Charlie's Angels," but still finished ahead of another newcomer, "The Legend of Bagger Vance.") That's the third-fastest ascension to that mark ever for a fall release. And it's also the first time since last summer's "The Sixth Sense" that a movie has topped the charts for four straight weeks.

While that wouldn't be surprising if "Parents" were an action blockbuster, a spectacular horror movie, an event movie like "Titanic" or another "Star Wars" sequel, it's something of a jolt for a film so much smaller and more seemingly modest. "Parents" is a medium-budget domestic comedy about a fairly realistic situation--however subject to extreme comic exaggeration--and built around two stars who, although widely respected (and, in De Niro's case, even revered), aren't usually considered part of the Tom Cruise-Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts superstar elite.

In fact, De Niro, widely considered the best dramatic film actor of his generation, had never even been much hailed for comedy until last year's "Analyze This," which grossed almost $107 million. Though he may have appeared in more recognized film classics than any comparable contemporary American movie star--including "The Godfather II," "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The Deer Hunter," "1900," "Brazil," "Midnight Run," "Once Upon a Time in America" and "GoodFellas"--he has rarely had a financial success like this.

Nor has Stiller, though he was part of another comedy phenomenon last year, "There's Something About Mary," which made $176.5 million and ranks 45th among domestic movie grossers. (By comparison, "Home Alone," with $285.8 million, is the all-time highest-grossing comedy, and currently 12th among all movies.)

So what generated this formidable response?

For one thing, there's that universal chord. And there's some comic history. "Meet the Parents" has certain elements, those gross-out gags and over-the-edge situations that place it solidly in the mind-set of today's most popular extreme comedies, such as "There's Something About Mary." But unlike most of them, "Parents" has a story that springs out of recognizable domestic situations, psychological anguish and personal fears--one that harks back to the more realistic comedies of another era, from Spencer Tracy's paternal travails in 1950's "Father of the Bride" to Dustin Hoffman's locked-out-at-the-wedding anguish in Mike Nichols' 1967 "The Graduate" and, of course, to Woody Allen's WASP nightmare when he meets the parents of Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall" (1977). There's also, of course, the recent smash-hit variation on the theme (with gay parents), Nichols' and Elaine May's 1996 "The Birdcage."

In fact, "Meet the Parents" harks all the way back to the silent era, where the often rebuffed or humiliated suitor Buster Keaton and the upwardly mobile Harold Lloyd endured many similar indignities. That's no accident: The original creators/writers of "Meet the Parents," Greg Glienna and Mary Ruth Clarke, modeled their comedy on the silent classics.

For Stiller's character, Jewish male nurse Greg Focker, what emerges is the ultimate worst-case scenario. Stiller, accompanying girlfriend Teri Polo to her sister's wedding, meets and imagines that prospective dad-in-law De Niro hates him on sight. He may even be right--De Niro is suspicious of everybody--but Stiller is also painfully aware of the barriers of class, religion and culture between his world and his possible in-laws (he's urban Jewish middle class; they're wealthy WASPs).

Building the bridge, or even surviving the weekend, becomes a mountainous task. "Meet the Parents" is full of very funny scenes--from Stiller's nervous insertion of "Godspell" lyrics into dinner grace, to the fate of his prospective in-laws' septic system and beloved Himalayan cat, to Stiller's merciless persecution at the hands of a preoccupied ticket agent and a stickler flight attendant at the airport.

There's More Than Meets the Eye

Yet there's more involved here than either comedy tradition or laughs.

I'm usually not much in favor of over-analyzing movie box office reports because all too often, as Warren Beatty says, they're just referendums on the ad campaigns. But when a film shatters the conventions like this one has, it's different. (This year, only "Erin Brockovich" had even three chart-topping weeks.)

Why has "Parents" generated this response? Is it the movie's biting revelation of cultural and class hostilities, the undercurrent that fuels much of the humor? Is it Stiller and De Niro? Is it director Jay Roach--who has now hit the comedy jackpot three times, with "Parents" and the two "Austin Powers" movies? Is it the writers, credited (Jim Herzberg, John Hamburg) or not? Is it the Universal Studios marketers, who have been involved in more hits this year than any other studio team?

Obviously, it's all of those and more--including the now sadly neglected director-writer-star and co-writer-co-star of the original "Meet the Parents": Chicagoans Glienna and Clarke. They made the first low-budget version of this movie in 1992 to local acclaim, sought and failed to get national distribution, and then sold their property. Though the situation and many of the jokes remain the same, the original creators failed to get even co-writer credit on the movie because--in one of those famous maddeningly illogical Writers Guild rulings--their first screenplay for the De Niro-Stiller film was deemed an adapted screenplay, even though the script they had adapted was their own.

Perhaps curiosity will now win that first film a video release. But the local reputation of the first "Parents," which some critics actually prefer to the second, proves something important. The material usually works.

The idea itself strongly appeals to a huge audience, and in retrospect, it's not hard to see why. Many critics linked the movie's plot to similar excruciating situations in "Annie Hall," "Goodbye, Columbus" and "The Birdcage," while ignoring or forgetting how many of us have gone through similar trials--or are afraid we might.

"Meet the Parents" is less shy. It's a comedy about the complexities of romance and family, and the fact that love is subject to all the conflicts, prejudices, lousy inequities and excruciating foul-ups of life itself. That's sad, but it's also funny. It's a story many of us know, and--as long as it's told well--it's one we'll always listen to.

Why? Because anyone who has ever suffered this hell on either end (boyfriend, girlfriend or parents) wants to hear what happened to the other guy.

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