It’s the holidays, and the third instalment of the Meet the Parents saga has arrived – not unlike the Ghost of Christmas Future – to provide us with a terrifying glimpse at a journey taken down the wrong path. Robert De Niro is the Jacob Marley figure; chained to this franchise and forced to demean himself and his legacy (most notably in a sequence where he is administered a syringe of adrenaline straight to the penis). Alright, alright, Little Fockers isn’t that bad (although it is bad). Depending on your relationship with the previous films – Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers – and the characters, it may even steal from you a couple of giggles. But where the first film was devilishly cheeky, and the second cheerfully silly, the third coasts on lazy familiarity, hoping its audience will be satiated by the constant refrain of “Focker” that litters every second line of the script.
Here is a film in which almost every member of the cast can be seen daydreaming of the giant pay check they have waiting for them at the end of the shoot. It’s a movie where Mean Streets co-stars Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel occupy the same scene, but the screenwriters didn’t think to have them trade quips or barbs. It’s a motion picture where Jessica Alba of all people is working hardest (and boy is she working hard). It’s a cinematic experience (I’m running out of synonyms for ‘film’ here) messily cobbled together, no doubt to navigate the complex working schedules of its ginormous – and entirely wasted – cast. There are a lot of scenes here in which the characters are supposedly miles away, talking via phone or webcam. Yes, they’re literally phoning their performances in. Surely they knew some hack reviewer out there (like me!) would call them out on that painfully obvious bit of symbolism.
For traditions sake, the plot: We first met Greg/Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) back in 2001 when he had to meet the parents of his girlfriend Pam (Teri Polo); lovely Dana (Blythe Danner) and the imposing ex-CIA operative Jack Byrnes (De Niro). Then, Greg and Pam got engaged, and it was time for the Byrnes to meet Greg’s parents; the sexually-forthright Roz (Barbra Streisand) and the kindly, embarrassing Bernie (Dustin Hoffman). Now, we get to meet Greg and Pam’s twins Henry (Colin Baiocchi) and Samantha (Daisy Tahan), and we are given the “pleasure” of watching the family come together to jointly celebrate their fifth birthday. There you go; a lazy synopsis for a lazy film.
Also along for the ride: Owen Wilson as Pam’s faux-mystic former paramour Kevin, Harvey Keitel (briefly) as a building contractor, Laura Dern – giving the film’s best performance – as the loopy principal of the kids’ prestigious Early Human School, and as previously mentioned, Jessica Alba. Now Jess Alba, bless her heart, really wants to be funny. She’s goofy, zany, and wacky, all at once. So is Carrot Top (who is not featured in this film, but would hardly be out of place). She reeks of desperation, further augmented by the fact that everyone around her seems to be void-acting, or reverse-acting, or whatever you call it when people actively try to not be funny or interesting.
I suppose I should mention that director of the previous films, Jay Roach, is here replaced by Paul Weitz. Maybe this subtle tampering with the cast and crew dynamics is to blame for this film’s failings. Eh, whatever. Criticism blah blah blah. It doesn’t really matter what I say, because I’m certain Little Fockers will be a hit regardless (yes, I have enough self-awareness to know that my negative review will unlikely shatter its box office performance). I’ll admit I giggled a couple of times, but I chalk that up to my deep affection for the earlier instalments, and the innate likability of the cast (lazy as they may be). Little Fockers is what it says on the tin (literally). I don’t know what else to say. It’s December. It’s been a long year; I’ve reviewed a lot of films and I think I’ve run out of adjectives. And maybe that’s the best way I can convey my disappointment with this movie. Film critics get tired too, and sometimes we look forward to a silly film that feels familiar. But a good silly film still requires some effort; a funny script, well-timed direction, engaging performances. And I don’t hold in high regard any movie where more work was put into the shooting schedule rather than the script.
Little Fockers arrives in Australian cinemas December 26, 2010.