What's a nice Jewish boy supposed to do in when he's asked to say grace by his girlfriend's WASPy parents? In the case of the oddly surnamed Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), the fool in love at the center of "Meet the Parents," the occasion calls for pitiful stammering, followed by a stroke of would-be brilliance.
His plan: Lift the lyrics of "Day by Day" (from the musical "Godspell") and pray nobody notices. But Greg's sweetheart, Pam (Teri Polo of TV's "Felicity"), catches on. So do her gruff dad, Jack (Robert De Niro) -- who introduces himself as a retired horticulturist -- and her seemingly hospitable mom, Dina (Blythe Danner). It's all downhill from there for clumsy, insecure Greg, who's seen as a dishonest interloper by the family and friends of the woman he wants to marry.
It's steadily uphill for us, though, for at least the first two-thirds of the film. A string of very funny slapstick sequences and verbal exchanges help director Jay Roach (of the Austin Powers movies) mine the comedic potential of a situation that's known to inspire terror in real life. Roach takes advantage of Stiller's gifts for perfectly timed line delivery and physical acting, and of De Niro's comic chops (convincingly polished in last year's Analyze This). They make a terrific team.
Jack, we learn, has a long history of visiting gleeful mental torture upon all of Pam's boyfriends, with the notable exception of the jockish, absurdly successful Kevin, a Wall Street wizard and part-time master carpenter who's played with the perfect mixture of charm and smarminess by Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon). When male nurse Greg shows up with Pam at her parents' beautifully appointed home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., Dad goes into action.
Greg admits to a preference for dogs over cats. Jack's response: "You prefer an emotionally shallow animal." When the two men listen to "Puff, the Magic Dragon" during a car ride, Greg mentions the song's psychedelic overtones. Pop's accusation: He must be a pothead.
It's a rough start, but there's more brain-squeezing to come. Soon, Jack has Greg hooked up to a vintage polygraph machine. The alleged flower man is really a retired CIA operative, a human lie detector whose specialty was the investigation of suspected double agents. His tough-guy routine isn't a put-on: He relied on his wits and his skills to survive 19 months in a Vietnamese prison camp.
The remainder of "Meet the Parents" is an extended cat-and-mouse game packed with hilarious, increasingly disastrous flubs on Greg's part. Will he discover and spill the dark secret that Jack seems to hide? Will Jack be able to pin down the apparent contradictions between the autobiographical information Greg provides and reality? Will circumstances conspire to keep Greg and Pam apart? It's great fun watching them slide toward the brink of romantic disaster -- with Dad pushing from behind.