Divine Foolishness

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Let's say the stern father has just read a perfectly ghastly memorial poem to his dead mother. Now let's say the young man courting his daughter has just made a little joke about the urn on the dining-room mantle. It does not take a great comic mind to imagine that it contains grandma's remains.

Now let's arm that young man with a bottle of cheap, celebratory Champagne. When he uncorks it, can you guess where the cork is going to fly? And what it must do to the precariously placed urn? If you have a taste for farce, you can.

Let us now introduce into the equation a beloved family cat, whose excretory habits have already been the subject of slightly strained discussion. Can you predict what he might do, when confronted with a nice, fresh pile of ashes in the midst of a nasty hubbub in which his needs are being ignored? If you can, then you have a taste for something in short supply lately — farce that is divinely invented and perfectly orchestrated.

And you had better skid, slide and stumble as fast as your flailing limbs can carry you to "Meet the Parents." It is the work of director Jay Roach, whose Austin Powers movies were intermittently funny but not what anyone would call intricately constructed machines. What those movies needed was a couple of skilled tool-and-die makers like Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg, who wrote this screenplay. And a bunch of actors, led by Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller, who understand that palpable reality will always trump frenzied fantasy when it comes to getting laughs.

De Niro is Jack Byrnes, formerly (or maybe not so formerly) a CIA operative, projecting an air of sweet reason from his suburban colonial home. That it contains a secret lair equipped with a lie detector is nobody's business. That the lyrics of his favorite song, "Puff the Magic Dragon," may contain a hidden metaphor comes as an unwelcome surprise to him. That a suggestion that his affection for his daughters, especially Pam (Teri Polo), may be touched by feelings that would make Oedipus blush could earn you termination with maximum prejudice — as the beta male candidate for her affections, the unfortunately named Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), learns.

He's the kind of guy who would rather be a male nurse than a doctor. Also the kind of guy whose luggage the airline is bound to lose. And the sort you know is going to end up on Jack's roof, chasing a cat, holding a live wire in one hand, putting out a leaf fire with one foot while trying to pretend the overflow in the septic tank down below is not his fault. De Niro is getting awfully good at comic menace (see "Analyze This"), and Stiller, a handsome guy who never alludes to his good looks, is a deliciously preoccupied innocent.

But then, preoccupation may be the key to this movie's success. All the members of the family are trying to focus on the wedding of Pam's sister, which means they would prefer Greg, the outsider, to be the fly on the wall, not the fly in the ointment. Alas, poor Focker. He can't help himself. And we can't help ourselves from falling about, equally helpless, at this superbly antic movie.