Here we are back again in Focker-dom, that wonderful place of crushing comic awkwardness, painful slapstick and the no less excruciating specter of great actors slumming for paychecks. Surely, the world did not need Little Fockers, this second sequel to the somewhat overrated Meet the Parents, but like an obligatory stocking-stuffer it has arrived – to cash in for Christmas – and must be dealt with.

The gold star gang returns: Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Owen Wilson, Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman apparently could not pass up the chance to remain tied to a series that’s grossed over $800 million worldwide. Paul Weitz – director of solid dramedies About a Boy and In Good Company – takes the helm. And what all the talent brings is a tame, predictable comedy rife with the same tired elements that abounded in films one and two (Meet the Fockers).

Expecting some sort of seismic shift in tone and content would, of course, be unrealistic, but really? So many smart, engaging people and the best they could come up with are blood-spurting thumbs, construction accidents and an erectile emergency? Apparently so, as those are the comic highlights in this installation of the continuing foibles of Greg Focker (Stiller), male nurse, and the father-in-law (De Niro) who can’t stomach him.

Now Greg and wife Pam (Polo) have welcomed the two littlest Fockers, their children Samantha (Daisy Tahan) and Henry (Colin Baoicchi). The woefully thin plot follows De Niro’s Grandpa Jack and Danner’s Grandma Dina on a typically off-kilter visit to the Focker home in Chicago, with brief appearances from Pa (Hoffman) and Ma (Streisand) Focker and a longer look at Pam’s omnipresent former flame Kevin (Wilson).

Take or leave the first two films, but they turned on comic conceits with potential – boyfriend meets the parents and in-laws get together. Here, screenwriters John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey appear to realize they have nothing. The specter of grandparents visiting the grandkids is so mundane and tension-free that it inspires none of the cringing moments of recognition that abounded in the first two movies.

Thus, Hamburg and Stuckey are burdened to make something out of moldy leftovers, to find a way to deliver the audience the sharp slapstick they’ve come to expect from the franchise. Once in a while, they succeed, but most often the movie unfolds in a sort of vanilla land of chuckle-worthy gags that land with something more than a thud, but less than full-fledged comedic force. There’s not much of a narrative – Jack decides Greg is having an affair with pharmaceutical rep Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba – and yes, her character’s name is par for the sort of humor you get here) – so the gags are really all you’ve got.

De Niro and Stiller give as much as they can to the inconsequential, shaggy silliness, laboring to bring some sort of freshness to what is fundamentally TBS-rerun worthy treacle. Still, the stars and the other consummate professionals that have cashed in here are helpless when facing the overarching staleness of a franchise trying to ring one last payday out of a tired shtick.

The Upside: There are a lot of talented people involved and the movie is, well, kinda funny.

The Downside: It’s also really tired and stale.

On the Side: Please, please, please see one of the many better movies out this weekend.


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