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Humor is all relative in the new relationship comedy "Meet the Parents." 

Those Three Little Words

Anyone who's ever teetered on the edge of commitment fears those dreaded three little words. No, I'm not talking about "I love you." Think scarier. Think palms-sweating scary. Think fragile self-esteem scary. Oh, yeah, you know the words. It starts out like an innocent invite for a weekend getaway, but ends with a zinger: Come home with me and meet the parents. What Woody Allen touched on hilariously in "Annie Hall" when he met Diane Keaton's wacko Wisconsin family, "Austin Powers" director Jay Roach now expands into a flat-out funny, full-length movie. Incredibly, as broad as the humor is in this viewer-friendly relationship comedy, it's funny without being excessively dummied-down.

Ben Stiller plays the outsider, the one being brought home to meet girlfriend Teri Polo's parents, who, of course, will be taking his measure. Blythe Danner is the perfect, understanding mom; daddy is another trip entirely. Playing with his usual intensity, Robert De Niro makes a terrific run at being the single most terrifying father figure any prospective son-in-law has ever encountered. As every man knows, it's relatively easy to win the heart of a woman. The tough part is winning her father's approval.

As Greg Focker, Stiller slowly but surely proves he's unworthy to wed Jack Byrnes' (De Niro) lovely daughter Pam (Polo). Even her sincere plea "to be nice to this one, Daddy," falls on deaf ears. A CIA veteran, Jack clearly knows a thing or two about intimidation. Greg hopes to use this hastily planned trip to Long Island for Pam's sister's equally hastily planned marriage to pop the question. Alpha-male daddy somehow senses this, and the clash of class, cultures and wills begins.

Compared to the poised and polished Byrneses living their Norman Rockwell-style WASPish life, Greg appears grubby and unambitious. Much humor is made of his being a male nurse, having quit medical school just short of being a doctor. There's also the fact that he's Jewish. At dinner, Daddy Jack calls on him to say grace. But instead of admitting his inexperience, he takes a very funny stab at a blessing, finally ending up reciting some lyrics from "Godspell." In another scene, Pam's ex-boyfriend (Owen Wilson) explains that he took up carpentry because he considers Jesus an excellent role model.

Unlike "Goodbye, Columbus" or the aforementioned "Annie Hall," this Jewish outsider theme isn't the main thread of the movie. It's really all about Stiller. Reprising his sincere, sad-sap role from "There's Something About Mary," Stiller has the ability to make us feel every slight, every dig, every wince his character endures. Increasingly, Stiller seems to be turning into the new millennium's version of Buster Keaton. Though not quite the genius Keaton was, Stiller has great empathy for playing borderline losers. He may be a putz, but he's a likable, good-natured putz. And we feel for him even as we're laughing at his antics.

As the weekend progresses, disaster after disaster befalls poor Greg. Not the least of which includes the lie-detector test — "just for fun" — Daddy Jack subjects him to. He also injures the bride-to-be in a fiercely competitive water volleyball game; floods the backyard wedding site with sewage; and nearly destroys the Byrnes' house while trying to retrieve the family cat he unknowingly let out.

Having scored nicely with his seriocomic role in "Analyze This," De Niro once again mines plenty of laughs by playing it straight. Working with and off of each other, De Niro and Stiller milk their characters' thinly veiled, mutual animosity for all it's worth.

Showing a knack for character-driven comedies here, director Roach keeps "Meet The Parents" moving along, the humor building nicely from one scene to the next with each new comic consequence poor Greg faces. The fun of "Meet the Parents" is that we've all been in Greg's shoes, so we're actually laughing at ourselves. And that's always a good thing.

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