By Leah Rozen
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo

Mothers-in-law get off easy in Meet the Parents. Instead, a would-be father-in-law serves as the running punch line in this middling comedy, a movie that sets up its jokes laboriously and then kneads them until all possible giggles have been squeezed out. Don’t think an overflowing septic tank is funny enough? Just wait until wedding guests get spattered with the muck—and don’t forget those close-ups.

The movie’s hero is the infelicitously named Greg Focker (Stiller), a male nurse who tries desperately to win over his prospective father-in-law (De Niro), a WASPy, suburban, sweater-wearing dad who takes an instant dislike to his daughter’s new Jewish boyfriend. The harder Focker tries, the more determined Dad becomes to unmask the young man for the liar and drug user he mistakenly assumes him to be. He even goes so far as to administer a polygraph test to the flustered visitor.

While there are chuckles to be had here, director Jay Roach (Austin Powers 1 and 2) and his scriptwriters strain too hard. In an early scene Focker tosses a cigarette pack (Dad hates smokers) onto the roof and there’s a close-up of it lying on the shingles. Why? So that halfway through the film we can get an elaborate, prolonged bit in which Focker climbs out onto the roof, smokes a cigarette and accidentally starts a major fire. Parents is at its best when it relaxes a little, as in a throw-away scene in which Focker’s girl’s wealthy ex-beau (Owen Wilson) explains that he took up woodworking as a hobby “because whose footsteps better to follow in than Christ’s?”

De Niro easily earns laughs as the wacky overprotective father, but one can’t help thinking he is doing a revisionist Travis Bickle, showing us Taxi Driver’s antihero hiding out amid the chintz. Stiller is still stuck in his hapless chump mode from There’s Something About Mary. Danner, as De Niro’s wife, and Polo (from TV’s Felicity) both have too little to do, though Danner deftly adds decorative comic filigree where she can. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Only relatively funny