American families are breaking up. The ticket-buying audience is getting younger. Studio bean counters prefer reinvesting in the familiar to gambling on the new. In trying to guess why Hollywood is producing so few satisfying, modern-day, mainstream comedies not pegged to the recognizable antics of big-budget stars like Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy, I'm probably overlooking the obvious: Making a funny but not mean, smart but not smug, broad but not lazy ensemble comedy about contemporary people in a realistic setting is hard.
For which Meet the Parents is to be commended it's a bouncy, loose-limbed, families-do-the-darnedest-things sitcom that elicits ungrudging laughs without invoking water boys, pet detectives, or Klumps. The premise is simple, streamlined, a direct descendant of a hundred society-affirming all-in-the-family romps from Father of the Bride to Betsy's Wedding: A would-be groom spends a weekend at the swanky home of his formidable prospective in-laws, and in his nervousness he nearly wrecks the place, as well as his chances of wedding their precious daughter.
The casting is inspired, leading with Ben Stiller as the marriage-minded young man and Robert De Niro as the paterfamilias. (Can you think of a more terrifying father-in-law?) Director Jay Roach, who orchestrated mod mayhem in his two Austin Powers hits, is no Frank Capra, Woody Allen, or Todd Solondz (to mention three wildly different stylizers of American family life); his movie is as standardly wrapped and sometimes as unwieldy as an armful of wedding presents. But at least Roach brings gifts to the party.
He unwraps them only after getting the ceremonies off to a bumpy start. In the dismaying opening scene, a doctor appears to be proposing marriage to his sweetheart on her sickbed. The camera pulls in close on Stiller's face a sign, of course, that this medic is no angel. (Like his fellow ironist Greg Kinnear, Stiller's got a handsome mug that mimes, ''You may be right; I may be a schmuck.'') Then the camera pulls back. The man in the surgical scrubs (his vaguely rude name is Greg Focker) turns out to be practicing his proposal speech on a toothless old hospital patient. Greg is also fiddling with a length of catheter tubing, to the bedridden man's intense penile discomfort. And, Greg announces, he's really not a doctor. He's a nurse. Genital reference and gender stereotyping, ha-ha!
After that, though, Parents finds its own comfortable rhythm. Working from an unforced, conversational script by Jim Herzfeld (It's Garry Shandling's Show) and John Hamburg (Safe Men), Roach allows his thoroughbred cast room to prance without letting them run wild. This is another light project in which De Niro plays for laughs off his well-earned fame as a volatile heavy, and it's his best comic star turn yet; the novelty-act self-consciousness he brought to Wag the Dog and the antic intensity with which he parodied his own wiseguy image in Analyze This has burned off. And relaxed, he's even funnier. When, as protective daddy Jack Byrnes, he appraises the character of the man who wants to marry his adored little girl, Pam (cottony-soft Teri Polo, from TV's Felicity), De Niro lets simple glances do the work and Roach lets the actor take his time, drawing out the deadpan hilarity.