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Making Family Films Focking Funny

Who ever thought a film about a nurse named Gaylord Focker meeting his future in-laws, one of whom is ex-CIA, would ever pave the way for a comedy trilogy? The simple idea to capitalize on the tension of the in-law relationship made Meet the Parents a hit with audiences back in 2000 and consequently its sequel, Meet the Fockers, holds the box-office record for most successful live-action comedy of all time (though “The Hangover” gave it a scare).

Dysfunctional families have been a staple of comedy for quite some time now, so how is it that “Parents” and "Fockers” outdid what so many others have done?

The film has a unique origin. Meet the Parents was originally made into a film in 1992 by amateur filmmakers Greg Glienna and Mary Ruth Clarke. Presumably, Universal swooped in and purchased the rights to their screenplay and then put it into production as a large-scale comedy, bringing in Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg, both new to the game at the time to do some rewriting. Star Ben Stiller had a bit to do with the rewrites as well.

The, Robert De Niro found the project. The Stiller/De Niro dynamic makes the film a real standout. Countless family-based comedies have relied on good comedic chemistry, but Stiller and De Niro possessed the ideal combination of appeal and talent.

De Niro had just tasted success as a comic actor in 1999′s Analyze This next to Billy Crystal, but he was still relying off his “mob boss” typecasting. As Jack Byrnes, a conservative father who’s slightly cuckoo having been in the CIA, De Niro gets a chance to fit his quirks into a more “everyman” role as an over-concerned father. He dictates the tempo of Meet the Parents as Greg tries to impress him (or at least not embarrass himself) at every turn.

Stiller, two years after his breakout performance in There’s Something About Mary, was still a fresh face, one that audiences were beginning to associate with a new brand of uncensored comedy that would come to define the next 10 years. Stiller would succeed in the role by portraying a charismatic loser (with the much-debased career of male nurse) with a tongue much sharper than his common sense. This character type would find its way into more roles than that of Greg Focker, and as such diminished the effectiveness of his character in the sequel.

Other than the pair of actors, “Meet the Parents” did simple gags well: the volleyball to the face, the cat and the ashes, the name Focker in general …  nothing groundbreaking by today’s standards, but considering the implications these humorous moments had on the ever-failing Greg and the ever-skeptical Jack, they were more effective.

Meet the Fockers was a huge hit in 2004, taking advantage of Christmas time to make a huge haul, not surprising considering the business “Parents” did in October of all months. Undoubtedly the first film was never intended to have a sequel, but the idea of the Byrnes family meeting Greg’s parents this time was right on. To try and outdo themselves, big-draw actors would need to fill the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Focker. Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand were perfect as the Jewish hippie parents crazy enough to name their son Gaylord Focker. Streisand, who hadn’t been in a film in eight years, came out of “retirement” for the role as she did again for Little Fockers.

Everything Jack and Dina Byrnes weren’t, Bernie and Rozalin Focker were, so naturally this shook things up in the sequel. And of course Jack went back to his old ways, convinced that Greg slept with his Hispanic cleaning lady, who became pregnant and had a son. The film had plenty of gags from the truth serum to Greg’s foreskin, but the originality in the jokes lacked a bit more in places. Nevertheless, no arguing with how the film performed at the box office.

A more appropriate six years later, we get Little Fockers. Greg, now in Jack’s “Circle of Trust,” wants to pass down the reigns as man of the house to Greg, who is nervous about taking them for fear of not living up to Jack’s standards. Undoubtedly his child-rearing capabilities will also be questioned.

From the trailers, it looks as if Stiller’s grown up in the role a bit, considering that Greg is now used to Jack’s antics and his gradual senility. We’ve already got an erection joke and a cutting finger episode, so the gags look to be the same old, but there’s no doubt Little Fockers will make bank at the box office yet again, though likely nowhere close to its predecessor.

The success and decade-long longevity of this series doesn’t necessarily speak to how funny it is, but that just about every one can relate to it. The pressure to “succeed” in the eyes of our family members, especially in-laws, is sort of universal. There’s always going to be a market for a good family-focused comedy, but the key is finding the right dynamic, this one obviously being founded on the terrific character of Jack and Greg. Both their styles of humor have certainly worn on us, but the relationship remains unparalleled in the history of father and son-in-law on film — and that’s a very frequently used relationship (see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?).

My guess is we’ll have seen the last of the Fockers after this film. It will succeed, but the results will be diminished. And frankly, there’s nowhere else to take this story. “Teenage Fockers”? I don’t think so. There’s nowhere else to really take the key conflict/relationship between Jack and Greg. Even so, comedies never succeed critically beyond two or three films because more than other genres, freshness makes a film funny.

The Fockers and Byrnes have been funny. They brought freshness to a family comedy sub-genre that really hasn’t had any kind of success lately. Whether you find the films classic or you’re tired of them already, there’s no doubt of their imprint on modern comedy.


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