Comedy is a fragile thing, or so say the experts. One of the most delicate components to making someone laugh is the element of surprise. So what happens when the surprise is gone?
That’s the challenge for comedy sequels. The initial setup and the characters living in it have already been exposed to the audience. In order to even generate a sequel, the original had to be pretty widely seen. When the story is set around a family’s home life, filmmakers and audiences have to ask themselves the question that author Thomas Wolfe once famously answered in the negative: Can you go home again?
Both of our competitors have taken that challenge. This Is 40 uses characters (albeit the secondary ones) first introduced in the huge hit Knocked Up. And Meet the Fockers followed up on the huge, family comedy sensation that Meet the Parents had been.
Each of these competitors strives to improve upon the film that inspired it. Did either one succeed? And, more to the point of our Smackdown, if you put these sequels up against each other, is one of them clearly funnier and fresher?
Writer/director/producer Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People) has expanded the story of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) and their two kids from his critical and commercial hit Knocked Up, letting the two parents, side characters in the original film, take on the responsibility for an entire movie themselves. If it feels a bit like a home movie, it’s because Apatow has cast the three female members of his immediate family in the leading roles. We assume that means Rudd is standing in for Judd.
In any case, Pete/Rudd/Apatow? and Debbie/Mann/Mann? have hit that place in their relationship where everything is a little less than thrilling. Beyond that, there’s not much of a plot, although there are a couple of parental roles elevated by Albert Brooks playing Pete’s dad and John Lithgow playing Debbie’s dad.
Meet the Parents made $330 million and so it was inevitable there would be a sequel. It wasn’t much of a stretch to say that after the hapless Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) met the parents of his girlfriend Pam (Teri Polo) in the original, it would be time to Meet the Fockers. Roz (Barbra Streisand, warming up for her role as Seth Rogen’s mom in the current box-office-challenged The Guilt Trip) and Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) are about as inappropriate a parental unit as ever graced a film, easily edging out the cat-loving ex-spook Jack Byrnes (Robert DeNiro) and his semi-normal wife Dina (Blythe Danner) from the original.
Round Two begins with Greg and Pam still not hitched in the sequel. Instead of a cat, though, now there’s a dog, so if that doesn’t prove this is a vastly different movie, then I don’t know what does. Oh, and they still have Circle of Trust issues.
Both Judd Apatow, who directed This Is 40, and Jay Roach, who directed Meet the Fockers, are creative artists who know where to find the funny. Apatow goes for crude and outrageous, and Roach goes for squirmingly uncomfortable.
Neither sequel is as funny as the movie that inspired it. Both Knocked Up and Meet the Parents had people actually screaming their laughter out loud in the theaters where I saw them. This Is 40 and Meet the Fockers, on the other hand, had audiences back in their seats hoping they could have as good a time with the new films as they did with the ones that inspired them. In both cases, those audiences left slightly disappointed.
This Is 40 is not bad; it’s just not as good. Its greatest disadvantage is that Apatow’s wife is fine in supporting roles but when given the movie to star in, she comes across as grating, bitchy and kinda mean. Given that she’s half the film, that makes it hard to get going.
Meet the Fockers lacks the shock and surprise of its inspiration. There’s no doubt that seeing Barbra Streisand as Ben Stiller’s sex therapist mom and Dustin Hoffman as his cuckolded homebody dad has its share of laughs.
Paul Rudd is funnier the second time around than Ben Stiller. Point, This Is 40.
Both Teri Polo and Leslie Mann are less funny than either of the guys. Blah meets Bitch. Blah is more tolerable. Point, Fockers.
Streisand, Hoffman and DeNiro are funnier as parents than Lithgow and Brooks, who are, respectively, sad and pathetic. Point again, Meet the Fockers.
This Is 40, on the other hand, plays way more real than Fockers, which feels like one big comedy sketch. (If you’re being charitable, you could say it feels almost spontaneous.) On the other hand, people often go to film comedies to get away from real, so there’s that.
Meet the Parents embraces the kind of shock and surprise that generates laughs. Knocked Up was about finding some reality, no matter how crude or crass. Two very good films, two different kinds of comedy.
There is zero shock and surprise in Meet the Fockers. It’s tame stuff compared to the original. But it does have Hoffman and Streisand, front and center, and the fun they are obviously having with their lunatic characters is infectious. On the other hand, there is something sad and unfunny and unlikable about This Is 40. It may be closer to the truth, but it ain’t closer to the funny.
Fock it. This one has to go to Meet the Fockers.