As the anchor of the Fockers franchise, Ben Stiller is a reminder that being a movie star, while full of riches and perks, isn't a free ride. On the set of Little Fockers, the third in the comic series that began with 2000's Meet the Parents, Stiller probably spent a solid day having a child actor's chunky fake vomit sprayed on his face repeatedly. And what do you suppose was less fun: the scene with the anal exam (although he wasn't on the receiving end) or the hours spent thrashing around in a bouncy castle with Robert DeNiro in order to capture the verisimilitude of in-law rage?
For Stiller, coming off a strong performance in the yucky but smart Greenberg, the yucky and not smart Little Fockers was less a sacrifice for art than for money. The movie, directed by Paul Weitz and featuring such surprises as Owen Wilson kissing Barbra Streisand and Jessica Alba being kind of funny, is being positioned as the closest thing to a cinematic sure bet this Christmas weekend. The franchise is tired and the situations are forced, but Universal is banking on the belief that people will still want to see Stiller's Gaylord "Greg" Focker, the consummate American schlemiel. They probably will; as Focker, Stiller is adept at making moviegoers feel better about their own lousy lives and challenging in-laws.
Like the rest of us, Greg is under more intense financial pressure than usual these days. His twins, Henry (Colin Baiocchi) and surly Samantha (Daisy Tahan), a chip off her grandfather's suspicious, fractious, former-CIA-agent block, are about to turn five an age at which yuppie parents' thoughts turn to expensive private schooling. The missus, Pam (Teri Polo) is a stay-at-home mom. While Greg the oft-ridiculed male nurse has been promoted to an administrative position at his Chicago hospital, he's also a new homeowner, with a suburban house under extensive and expensive renovation by a shady contractor (Harvey Keitel).
Greg's blood relatives are also being more embarrassing than usual: his mother Roz (Streisand) has become the host of a successful television sex therapy show, where she freely mines Greg's personal life for material, and his father Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) has run off to Spain to learn to tango a desire Roz ascribes to male menopause (late onset, from where we sit). As the movie begins, just a couple of weeks before the twins' birthday, the bright side for Greg is that his gruff father-in-law Jack Byrnes (DeNiro) has finally decided he's not so bad. Jack's "good" son-in-law of the earlier movies, Dr. Bob (Tom McCarthy), has disgraced himself with infidelity and Jack, ruffled by his own heart condition, has decided to pass the paternal mantle to Greg. "Are you prepared to be the GodFocker?" asks Jack.
In Stiller's capable hands, we're reminded again what a good and patient guy Greg is. He's made friends with Kevin (Wilson), his once-insufferable rival for Pam's affections. He's accepted this difficult relationship with his father-in-law and does his best to accommodate the jerk. When Jack and Pam's mother Dina (Blythe Danner) arrive for the birthday festivities, Greg roasts a turkey. It's not Thanksgiving, but he remembered that Jack likes and appreciates a turkey any day of the year. And he's flattered by his new GodFocker responsibilities.
Wait a minute. GodFocker? There's a reason why Jack's choice of titles is especially ironic, but it eluded me far longer than it ought to have. I'm afraid the DeNiro of The Godfather, Part II and Goodfellas has mostly faded from my mind, replaced by the DeNiro of the Fockers a grim-faced comedian who tends to make me sad. He's at the age where he should be considered the elder statesman of American dramas, but there he is as grandpa Jack in Little Fockers, suffering the lingering effects of a new erectile dysfunction medication for heart patients. Raging bull indeed.
But as crass and dumb as Little Fockers is it grasps at drama by having Jack discard his new faith in Greg after he gets suspicious of Greg's working relationship with pretty pharmaceutical rep Andi Garcia (Alba) there are a few tidbits that work. Alba is charming until her character gets sent to the stupidity factory. A screen visitation from the elusive Streisand is never to be taken lightly, even if she doesn't do much. And Laura Dern's few scenes as Prudence, the headmistress of the Early Human School, an exclusive, progressive school to which Pam and Greg hope to send the twins, are brilliantly on the money. She manages to be cloying, cutting and New Age at the same time. In the all-too-likely event of a fourth Focker film, let's hope Henry and Samantha get in.