With a hero called Gaylord M. Focker, you might expect this to be a film of snickering silliness. It IS snickeringly silly - the soon-to-be-immortal champagne/urn scene; the cat-milking discussion; the skimpy swimming trunks; the volleyball bloodbath; the flushing cat; the wooden altar conflagration; the septic tank spray etc.; all good, healthy, daft, slapstick, prurient, scatalogical stuff. And while I in no way condone Greg's vile rage directed at the air-stewardess, it is very funny.
But, 'Meet the Parents' has the emotional truths that turn it from being merely a funny film into a comedy classic. Anyone who has ever been married or about to will recognise the horrible accuracy of this film. My own father-in-law is remarkably like Jack Byrnes here; not that he is an ex-CIA spycatcher (at least, I don't think so); but in his ability to intimidate, humiliate, terrorise, impose his power.
My point is that Jack's profession is only a comic exaggeration of what all fathers- or mothers-in-law are like, figures terrified of losing their children, defending them like animals in the wild, convinced that a prospective so-and-so will never be good enough for our baby, not even thinking that neither might they have been; refusing to admit they are getting old, that they are losing power and control.
It's only logical that the monster in-law from hell should be obsessive about power and control. His domestic panopticon is a superb metaphor for extended family life, the idea of being judged, marked on 'success' or 'suitability' ratings, your every personal, financial, health etc. problem a
matter for family investigation. Bitter, moi? Greg should be lucky Jack isn't married to Monica Geller's mom.
But the film doesn't simplistically pit Capraesque good guy Greg against shady CIA man Jack. If Jack is all about control, then so is Greg. The film has one of the best musical openings in recent memory ('if you're gentle and sweet, you're an idiot...'), but the opening montage is more sinister, as a faceless cameraman takes home movies of a pretty blonde. Pam is the true victim of this film, the prize in a macho battle of wits, the female bystander in the great masculine generational conflict, as Jack proves he's not past it, and Greg proves he's not a loser. Those voyeuristic home movies echo Jack's surveillance cameras and perform the same function, to watch, to control, to limit (just as Kevin remembers Pam by his photographs and his erotic memories).
One is heartened by the ironies of the ending, not just Jack breaking his word, determined to keep up his power games as he watches his CCTV's filming the most private places, where people are at their most vulnerable and exposed (revealing, truthfully, that the in-law struggle never ends)
The film also has some cutting things to say about the lingering anti-semitism in WASPish society; nothing much has changed since 'Auntie Mame'.
It is wonderful to see Robert de Niro finally getting a decent comedy. He has always been hilarious in 'straight' roles ('Mean Streets', 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull' etc.), but his comic vehicles have spluttered to a halt. He is genius here, his menace, his gestures, facial contortions, way of throwing out a line like he's garrotting it - bliss. If 'Parents' finally lacks the pull of a film like 'There's Something About Mary', then it's probably the nature of the plot. 'Mary' had an active plot, it was a quest, necessitating narrative and character development, and thus more audience commitment. 'Parents' is purely destructive, as Jack tries to destroy a love that's already been built up. Sadly, this scenario is much truer.