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'Little Fockers': Why is it so easy to mess up a comedy?

December 28, 2010 |  4:47 pm

It's rare to find critics and audiences agreeing so heartily on anything. But such is the power of "Little Fockers."

Critics thought the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro threequel was one of the worst movies of 2010 -- a dismal 4% of the top reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes deemed it fresh.  And for once, audiences didn't disagree with them -- more than a third of the moviegoers who turned out for the second film didn't show up this time. Those that did weren't impressed: They gave it a middling B- CinemaScore.

When a film performs this badly, there are usually more culprits than a bank-robber convention. And so the post-holiday Hollywood chatter went. The in-law antagonism felt overplayed. Dustin Hoffman needed to be dialed in at the end of the production. The movie's release was pushed back from the summer, a sign of a problem if not a problem in itself. Third installments of live-action franchises rarely work. And adding young children to any comedy franchise, on the big or small screen, is the surest sign of a shark-jump.

But on this long list of factors, it's worth looking in one place in particular: the director's chair. Both "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" were helmed by Jay Roach, the rare filmmaker who can balance the slapstick and the subtle in comedy. Including "Parents" and "Fockers," Roach (who has an Emmy under his belt for the dramatic "Recount") is responsible for four comedy mega-hits that critics liked nearly as much as audiences ("Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" are the other two).

Roach decided not to go for the hat-trick on "Fockers" -- he learned his lesson, apparently, from the last time he tried that, on "Austin Powers in Goldmember" -- and decided to make "Dinner for Schmucks" instead. (He's credited as a producer on "Fockers" but he was concentrating on "Schmucks" much of the time "Fockers" was being made.)  So in his place the production went with Paul Weitz, the "American Pie" director who hasn't done much funny on this side of the 21st century (last credit: "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant").

But it would be unfair to blame Weitz entirely. Many who've gone before him have also stumbled. Top-tier comedy directors are a rare breed in the first place, and even those who reach that status rarely achieve any consistency. Often they spin their wheels trying to do something more serious, a la Judd Apatow and "Funny People." Or they simply find their touch, and the times, suddenly eluding them, something that was painfully obvious with James L. Brooks' recent "How Do You Know."

John Hughes was one of the few to buck the trend, but that was a different time, and his was a different comedy. Shawn Levy was considered an exception too, but then came "Date Night."

The lack of reliability is why comedies so often get made on the basis of their star (and why, in turn, every third comedy in this country involves Adam Sandler). When that star does come on board, studios often don't even bother trying with a real filmmaker and just bring in a director who doesn't cost much and knows when to get out of the way.

Weitz is better than that. But he's not that much better. His punchless movie, in a season of punchless movies, makes you realize that if someone's going to make a comedy they should try to get a Jay Roach or maybe they shouldn't try at all.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Little Fockers." Credit: Universal Pictures


'Little Fockers' falls short of box-office expectations

Movie review: 'Little Fockers'


Comments () | Archives (12)

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Because this was, first and foremost, a money grab by Stiller and company. Anything creative was put on the back burner.

Movies like this are just remakes of the same mediocre comedy to line the makers' pockets. They must be laughing at the audiences as they go to the bank.

The author makes "Dinner for Schmucks" sound almost appealing... when it's just as bad. Fact is, much of what passes for comedy in mainstream movies is hardly worth a single laugh.

Haven't seen "Fockers," but I've read the plot details and I don't think any director alive could wring laughs out of it.

What's really sad is that so many uber-rich, uber-talented actors would go all-in for this paycheck cash in? Does Dustin Hoffman really need a gig that will stain his resume at this point? Isn't Stiller one of the most bankable comic actors around, and if so why would he settle for scraps?

what's wrong with date night? that movie was a fun ride...

The very bad My Man Adam (1985) was better at least because it had pretensions to a story but also because it supposedly had three of my early paintings in it.

Why not pass out criticism across the board? The script (that had a script?) was an abomination. Seeing Robert DeNiro with an erection problem was appalling, let alone Streisand's TV Sex Therapist scenes. Hoffman phoned in his performance (??), it was as contrived as the entire production. And finally, you could tell Babs and Dustin scenes were shoehorned into this mess. And the studios wonder where the audiences have gone.

What l crappy movie
Glad I watched a bootleg russian dvd instead of wasting money on this stinker

Let's remember that millions (?) of people actually paid money to see this film, and it did well in its opening weekend. Recession? What recession?

simple. the actors are all overexposed, and de niro is not a comedian.

It looks horrible in the trailers even in the trailers.

Why is this movie so bad? The answer is simple. It's a remake of a sequel, or is that a sequel or a remake? Anyway, it's all about the money nowadays. Just remake the same thing over and over and don't take any risks.


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