Two Cranky Guys Meet the ‘Little Fockers’
Bruce Fretts: We asked our readers what movie we should review next, and they told us to go Fock ourselves. That’s right—we saw the latest Ben Stiller–Robert De Niro comedy Little Fockers. Was it good for you?
Bret Watson: Little Fockers was filled with big machers. The result was chronically unfunny, but fascinating for the gigantic mismatch between amazing cast and crappy material. In addition to De Niro the cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Blythe Danner, Barbra Streisand, Laura Dern, Harvey Keitel—a Murderer’s Row of talent. And yet the result is like watching Babe Ruth’s Yankees get together to play tiddlywinks.
Bruce: I notice you left Ben Stiller out of that list. So I take it you’re not a fan? I liked him when he started out on The Ben Stiller Show 20 years ago, but he’s made some truly crappy movies, and the Fockers franchise are among my least favorite.
Bret: Ben Stiller is to comedy what mold is to food. As an actor, he usually wears just one expression, looking like a man who can’t find his exit in heavy traffic. Mount Rushmore can out-act Ben Stiller.
Bruce: You’re being too hard on him—he’s actually a gifted mimic, as he proved on the Stiller Show with impressions of people like Bono, Springsteen and Daniel Day-Lewis. But his movies are the comedy of humiliation—it’s all about ways he can get injured, like getting his penis caught in his zipper in There’s Something About Mary. In this one, he cuts his hand slicing a turkey, falls into a mud pit, etc. But there’s no comic payoff—we just feel humiliated watching him.
Bret: That finger-slicing turkey dinner scene is an example of why this movie is terrible: Time after time it sets up situations that lead to the feeblest of comedic payoffs. Here’s another example: Once again De Niro plays a hardass former C.I.A agent, and in one scene he gets in the face of a hippie/biker contractor played by Harvey Keitel. They start arguing, and you think, Wow, two great actors, great confrontation, this should be good… and then Stiller successfully separates them and the climax is Keitel saying something incoherent about Vietnam. No laughs. The sound editor should get an Oscar for camouflaging the sound of so many scenes fizzling.
Bruce: I kept thinking during that scene between Keitel and De Niro: I wonder if, when they were starving actors doing phenomenal work in Mean Streets with Scorsese, they were hoping: Thirty-seven years from now, we’ll be fat and happy, doing a crappy comedy with Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara’s kid for the money. They’re laughing all the way to the bank—and we’re not laughing at all.
Bret: We’re stuck bailing out that bank for its laugh-default swaps. The actors were so far above the material they probably needed radar to locate their scripts.
Bruce: It’s especially appalling because the Fockers movies are the only two films Streisand has made in the last 15 years. I’m not a big Barbra fan like you are, Bret—you dressed up as Yentl for Halloween this year again, didn’t you?—but what a waste of her talent. And Hoffman has mostly done voices for animated movies like Kung Fu Panda and The Tale of Despereaux lately. They’re barely in the movie—until nearly the end, we only see them talking on the telephone. They literally phone in their performances.
Bret: First of all, I dressed up as a lentil, not Yentl. Part of my vegan kick. Second, Kung Fu Panda is an excellent movie. Third, I don’t think the actors phoned it in. I was particularly impressed with how De Niro gives it all even when he’s in humiliating situations. The one place in the movie I smiled, almost laughed, was the image of him as he dives in slo-mo into a kiddie ball pit with a manic, furious expression on his face. Did you laugh at all?
Bruce: I laughed a little bit at the subplot about “the Early Human School,” a pretentious preschool that Ben Stiller tries to get his twins—the titular Little Fockers—into. Laura Dern was funny as the passive-aggressive school director. But again, there’s no payoff. Do we ever find out if they’re accepted? Maybe I nodded off and missed it.
Bret: That reminds me: The movie is misnamed. You might think that the kids play a big role, but fortunately they don’t. Otherwise it would be child abuse.
Bruce: They should’ve called the movie The Godfocker, since that’s the closest it has to a plot. And it’s a perfect example of why the movie sucks. De Niro asks son-in-law Stiller if he’s ready to take over as head of the Byrnes family in the event of his death and has made up a name for the role: the Godfocker. It’s an obvious play on De Niro’s role in Godfather II, but it makes no sense. Focker is Stiller’s family name, not De Niro’s. It’s a long way to go for a joke, and you run out of gas before you get there.
Bret: You can name so many scenes that trail off before any payoff. Another one: De Niro thinks Stiller is cheating on his wife and shadows him as Stiller boards a train. Stiller moves through the crowded train, with De Niro in pursuit. Ah, great, a parody of so many classic action-movie sequences. And the payoff is De Niro gets to the head car and, hello, there’s Stiller. Why are you following me? Oh, I’m out getting milk for the morning. Get off here, there’s a good organic market. OK. Scene. Was this really worth the trip?
Bruce: Even the scene they play up in the trailer—when Stiller has to inject De Niro in the penis because he’s taken a Viagra-like drug—has no climax. Stiller’s son walks in and sees it, then mentions it to Dern during his preschool interview and you think: Ah-ha, this is leading somewhere. But it peters out, so to speak.
Bret: Did anyone want to see the man who played Vito Corleone and Travis Bickle as an old man with a pup tent in his pajamas? I’m astonished that only two people are credited with the screenplay, or this outline for a screenplay. Surely someone involved with this project saw the script and said, “Where are the laughs? Can we get some actually humorous people to do a rewrite?” Can you imagine any point in the process of making this movie where the producers or anyone else said, “Yeah, this is great stuff”? But it will probably make money because people bring their fond memories of the previous movies (which I didn’t see) to the theater. The laughs I heard were more over the set-ups, like, Oh, there he goes again, this should be good! Then it isn’t good, and the laughs die and you listen to the explosions in the adjacent theater and think of the lucky people having more fun over there. Did you see the previous Fockers?
Bruce: I suffered through both Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers—the first one got good reviews, much to my horror. This one’s just as bad as the other two, but it’s marketed as a family comedy for Christmas. In the suburban New Jersey theater where I saw it, a mother brought her four kids and spent the movie checking her email. She clearly just wanted a couple hours off. Midway through the film, one of her little fockers wailed, “Mommy, this stinks!” I couldn’t agree more. And it’s totally inappropriate for kids. How about that scene when Stiller meets sexy drug rep Jessica Alba, and they administer an enema together? Fun for the whole family!
Bret: Wow. Unbelievable. This movie opens with a credit “Based on characters created by…” I think they should change that to: “Based on a pun by…” That seems to be the extent of the comedic inspiration: the pun Focker. And let’s congratulate ourselves for using only two “fock” puns so far. Both yours, I’ll point out.
Bruce: I couldn’t help myself. Yes, the movie is a pun-ishment. Oh, and Jessica Alba’s character is named Andi Garcia. Get it—like the actor! That’s actually one of the fresher references—he’s only been famous for 20 years or so. In addition to the Godfather joke, they parody Jaws in the ball-pit scene you mentioned. That’s cutting-edge satire!
Bret: I thought they were setting up an appearance by the actual Andy Garcia. Why not? Everyone else in Hollywood seems to be here, serving time for unknown crimes. But no Andy Garcia. Well, good for him.
Bruce: We haven’t even mentioned the film’s most obnoxious character, Kevin, played by Owen Wilson. He’s an old buddy of Gay Focker—get it, gay focker!—who’s obsessed with his wife, played by Teri Polo, also known as the luckiest actress in Hollywood for stumbling into this blockbuster franchise. She has no personality, so she fits in perfectly. A little of Owen Wilson goes a long way, but there’s a lot of him in this movie.
Bret: I don’t blame him for playing an irritating character. This was a good match between his skills and the part. Back to the family film thought: If you want to take your kids to a film this holiday weekend, what would you recommend?
Bruce: I’m actually thinking of taking my kids to see True Grit. It’s PG-13 and a little violent and scary in spots, but I feel like the 13-year-old girl, Mattie, played by Hallie Steinfeld, is a good role model for my nine-year-old daughter, Olive. She’s plucky and independent. And I think my 14-year-old son, Jed, will get a kick out of Jeff Bridges’ cock-of-the-walk turn as Rooster Cogburn, especially after seeing him in such a different role—or roles—in Tron: Legacy.
Bret: Plus True Grit has more laughs than Little Fockers.
Bruce: Schindler’s List had more laughs than Little Fockers.
Bret: Now that’s funny!
Will you be spending the holidays with Little Fockers? Post a comment, and Two Cranky Guys will respond!