Robert De Niro and "ha-ha" don't seem to go together. Maybe it's the indelible gallery of mad dogs that the Oscar-winning actor, 57, has played for director Martin Scorsese in films from Raging Bull to Cape Fear. Even in The King of Comedy, he went psycho. But the fact is that De Niro started his film career being roguishly funny in Brian DePalma's Greetings and Hi Mom. He showed a deft comic touch in the otherwise laborious 1971 farce The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (go rent them and see). And certainly De Niro's most distinguished recent work hasn't been in turgid dramas like Flawless, The Fan and Frankenstein, but in comedies that let him show his gift for ham (Analyze This) and wry (Wag the Dog).
All of which brings us to Meet the Parents, a hilarious hodgepodge of The In-Laws and Annie Hall, in which De Niro gives his best comic performance to date. Director Jay Roach, who guided both Austin Powers flicks, casts De Niro as retired horticulturalist Jack Byrnes, the very model of suburban WASP respectability with a Colonial house on posh Long Island, a devoted, dithering wife, Dina (Blythe Danner), and two gorgeous daughters, Pam (Teri Polo) and Debbie (Nicole DeHuff). The serviceable script by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg hangs on the premise that Pam, now a teacher in Chicago, is coming home to attend Debbie's wedding, and she's bringing along her new boyfriend to meet the parents. Here's the thing: Dad is really a CIA operative, and the boyfriend is male nurse Greg Focker, played by a never-funnier Ben Stiller as an urban neurotic who feels as lost as Woody Allen in Annie Hall when Diane Keaton tells him sweetly, "You're what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew."
Among the supporting cast, Owen Wilson is a merry standout as Kevin, Pam's rich ex-fiance — it doesn't comfort Greg when Pam says she and Kevin were "just a silly sex thing." But the movie, which wobbles along amiably in a hit-and-miss way, comes down to a goofball duel of wits, and De Niro and Stiller play the crazy comic hell out of it.
It's impossible not to laugh when Jack hooks up Greg to a home lie-detector ("Have you ever purchased pornographic material?"), keeps o share a toilet with Mr. Jinx, the Himalayan feline that Jack dotes on with a purring affection that De Niro makes sidesplitting and a little scary. "Don't you touch that cat, you son of a bitch," shouts Jack when he thinks, for reasons I'll leave the film to explain, that Greg intends to milk Mr. Jinx. Days after you see Meet the Parents, you'll think about De Niro — even if it's just the way he sizes up Stiller and calls him "Focker" — and smile.