Back in the 80s and early 90s, the Police Academy series of films became increasingly maligned for their dependence on recycling the old jokes from film to film, and effectively putting their characters through the same motions.
For my money, Meet The Fockers, the massively successful sequel to Meet The Parents, did exactly the same thing. Once again you had Robert De Niro as the retired CIA operative Jack Byrnes, who once again found some fairly forced reason to distrust the love of his daughter’s life, Greg ‘Gaylord’ Focker, played by Ben Stiller. It was cynical recycling, that struck gold at the box office, and became a massive hit.
Hence, Little Fockers.
For the first 20 minutes, though, there are threats that Little Fockers might actually be willing to offer some form of narrative progression. In fact, the early part of the film is quite promising. We meet De Niro’s Jack Byrnes again, this time contemplating his own mortality, and who will ascend to be the – nnnghhh – ‘Godfocker’. It’s a terrible gag, but the film then flirts with switching Stiller and De Niro’s roles around, offering some hint of character development for both of them.
Sadly, possibly as a result of rewrite hell, the idea is as swiftly abandoned as it is mooted, and the feared-for lazy sequel unfolds before your eyes. Everyone knows their place. De Niro is paranoid and pretty unlikeable (in fact, scratch that: Jack Byrnes becomes quite a horrible character, and why anyone would put up with him is beyond me), Stiller gets into compromising moments, Teri Polo as Stiller’s wife has her usual moment of doubt, and the senior Fockers, played by Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, get to do pretty much what they want.
The additions to the mix this time around? Well, Owen Wilson has a significantly beefed up role this time around as Kevin (which he makes a decent fist of), while Jessica Alba walks off with the most two-dimensional character of the year award for Andi Garcia (see what they did there?). You also get five-year old versions of the Focker children, Harvey Keitel in a bizarrely irrelevant cameo, and Laura Dern, at least having a bit of fun as the head teacher of a school that the aforementioned children might be going to.
They’re all jumbled together, then, in a film that feels cobbled together from lots and lots of different drafts. Thus, for every nod to The Godfather or Jaws, there’s a fart gag, a character cut short, a ‘we’re not gay really’ joke, or a quick photocopy of something that appeared in the earlier films. Furthermore, the last-minute weaving in of Dustin Hoffman into the film (he was written in only when the reshoots came along) sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb, as the majority of his and Barbra Streisand’s minimal scenes are separate from everything else. And, ultimately, add little to the film.
Yet there’s a bigger problem here. For it’s genuinely hard to think of a comedy in recent times that’s relied on such a collection of forced contrivances to generate its situations. There’s nothing really natural about it, and the narrative’s job here feels like it’s to link you from sketch to sketch using whatever it can find at the bottom of the drawer. Director Paul Weitz, no slouch when it comes to directing comedy, does his utmost, but he’s working from a script (or scripts) that proves impossible to weave much from (and that signposts most of its jokes).
On the plus side, and this is where Little Fockers lifts itself from outright mediocrity, at least the cast give it a very, very good go. Ben Stiller does a lot of heavy lifting here, and along with Blythe Danner, Teri Polo and De Niro, too, gamely makes as much as possible out of not very much. And as a result, there are a few scattered giggles to be found throughout the film.
But heck, you have to fight for them. Because after some initial promise, Little Fockers sadly proves content to follow its predecessor and take the lazy way out. It puts its characters through the same wrangles, with the same results, and then happily paves a way for a potential fourth film in the series to follow.
And that’s the surest indicator of what the main objective was here. It’s not to deliver the kind of laughs that the original managed, because it never threatens to do that, and never has the ambition to try anything new. Instead, it’s to inject longevity into a massively lucrative franchise, one that has some kind of premium status because of the cast it attracts.
It’s hard to read it any other way, sadly: this really is the new Police Academy franchise. It just gets away with it because it happens to have better actors on board.
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