Jews not only have bad manners, they are barely aware that manners exist, let alone that manners are about consideration for others. Jews tell untruths to get what they want. They are sex-obsessed. They are slobs. Their menfolk are hopelessly impractical shlemiels. They are complacently ignorant of the ways of other cultures, even in their own country.
At least, that is the way Jews are portrayed by the Jewish creators of the Meet the Parents trilogy of films.
In the brilliantly funny first movie, Ben Stiller's Greg Focker was not only an under-achieving shlub who presumed to call his prospective in-laws by their first names, he was also a coward and a liar. Yet you were supposed to identify with his sneakiness and desperate ruthlessness. Writers John Hamburg and Jim Herzfeld and director Jay Roach (a producer on Little Fockers) seemed to think that these qualities were charming, especially compared to the uptight ways of the upper middle-class WASPy family led by paranoid ex-CIA agent Jack Byrne (Robert De Niro). It may be that they were just blithely unaware that they had embraced an unpleasant stereotype; or maybe they thought they were courageously making fun of flaws all too common in their own milieu.
The Jewish-WASP culture clash continued to be explicit in the much coarser first sequel, Meet the Fockers, but plays a secondary role in the Little Fockers. Moreover, while the original dealt in a combination of extreme awkwardness and inspired slapstick, those qualities have been replaced by vulgarity, and uninspired vulgarity at that.
(The big joke, as given away in the trailers, involves Greg having to inject Jack in the penis after the latter has overdosed on an erectile dysfunction drug for heart patients.)
The action centres on a visit to Chicago (obviously played by Los Angeles) by both pairs of in-laws on the occasion of the fifth birthday of Greg's and wife Pam's twins, though despite the title, very little time in Little Fockers is actually spent with these offspring.
Jack Byrne is still paranoid. Greg's mother Roz (Barbra Streisand) has an embarrassing TV sex therapy show. Pam's first love, Kevin (Owen Wilson), is even more of a high-achieving but spiritually aware paragon.
It all feels strained. Little Fockers even wastes the energy brought to the second film by Streisand and Dustin Hoffman as Greg's embarrassing parents. The two veterans, whose explicitly Jewish hippie couple were arguably the saving grace of the second film, deliver some of the worst lines in the third.
"I'm trying to find my true north," Hoffman's Bernie tells Roz while learning the flamenco in Spain. "What are you, a compass or something?" she replies.
It is hard to believe that anyone involved in the project not under the influence of marijuana could convince themselves to allow such hopelessly feeble dialogue into the final cut.
But then whole stretches of the film reek of desperation, cynicism and greed. Particularly annoying are the feeble gags referring to The Godfather: the film has De Niro's Jack go completely out of character just so he can tell Stiller it is time for him to become the "Godfocker"and Stiller can say he would rather be the "Gregfocker". There are also insultingly lazy gags involving Jack's cat Jinxy and a pet lizard, feeble jokes involving vomit and farts and erections, a shameless plug for the Google internet search engine, and, perhaps even more nauseating, an idolatrous worship of fabulous wealth.
To be sure there are laughs, with a couple of sequences in the film in which writers John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey seem suddenly to be on form.
One of these takes place at a ghastly academy for young over-achievers called the Early Human school, run by a frighteningly fanatical ex-girlfriend of Kevin played by Laura Dern. It is as if getting away from the domestic battleground and into a field where yuppie parents battle to get their children into the right primary school, briefly snapped writers Hamburg out of their funk.
Nevertheless, as the film wears on you begin to feel sorry for the actors, despite the premium the studio presumably paid to secure members of the original cast. The capable Teri Polo, who plays Pam, and who looks realistically worn out by child-rearing, surely deserves better than to be a straight man in such an exhausted franchise.
Even more deserving of sympathy are newcomers like old De Niro comrade Harvey Keitel, shamefully wasted in a couple of mirthless scenes as a building contractor. At least he is not humiliated like Jessica Alba who gamely essays a repellently sexist and exploitative role as a pharmaceutical rep who pathetically throws herself at Greg, and ends up in her underwear covered in mud at the bottom of a pit.
The actor who comes out best is Owen Wilson. He and Stiller have collaborated effectively over the years, yet where Stiller's manic, Jack Lemmon-like shtick can seem tired, Wilson's more original combination of guilelessness and grandiosity retains its off-beat charm.