Little Fockers is possibly the last and certainly the least among the trio of comedies about the power struggle between a nebbishy male nurse and his menacing, control-freak father-in-law. It's a desultory, patchwork affair — competently made, comfortably played, but lacking the heart and wit characterized, in varying degrees, in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.
Oddly, though, this running out of gas seems less about a film series exhausting its supply of jokes than about something more organic and recognizably human. Gaylord "Greg" Focker (Ben Stiller) is an old married man now — settled and successful in his career, a father of 5-year-old twins. He has lost his manic panic at dating a scary man's daughter, his eye-bugging rage at being married into a family whose ex-CIA patriarch has everyone under his thumb. And Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro), having had a few mild heart events, has less energy to devote to tormenting the son-in-law.
The title of Little Fockers is misleading. It's not about the tiny tykes, but about legacy, genealogy and who takes over that "head of the family" role that Jack has held and held over Greg. The question Jack has for Greg as he preps to move the family (Teri Polo is back as wife Pam) into a renovated house and celebrate the twins' fifth birthday is, "Are you ready to be the God Focker?"
And the problem is, aside from that line — milked for as many laughs as you'd expect — the whole set-up just isn't very funny.
So writers John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey trot out more scenes with Pam's rich and generous, surfing and swinging ex-beau, dully played by Owen Wilson. Greg resents him because his kids call him "Papa Kev." There's a goofy, unfunny goombah contractor (Harvey Keitel), assorted scenes with Greg's TV sex therapist Yenta-mom (Barbra Streisand) and dizzy dad (Dustin Hoffman, trying way too hard).
Jessica Alba shows up as a drug-company rep with an eye and an enema for Greg — one funny scene has the ex-nurse drug rep helping Greg administer an enema to a patient, and needing a cigarette afterward. Laura Dern is the hippy-dippy head of the exclusive, over-achieving The Early Human School. And the kids deliver a few off-color cracks and a little projectile vomiting.
But the engine that drives these movies, the Stiller-De Niro dynamic, sputters on the cheap gas in the tank. The misunderstandings (Is Greg cheating on Pam?), the awkward familiarity ("Are you still sexually attracted to my daughter?") and the payoffs lack the pop director Jay Roach gave them in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.
Paul Weitz (Cirque du Freak, American Dreamz) takes over as director, and the film shows all the signs of reshoots and re-edits designed to bring in more characters and perhaps find a few more laughs. Weitz, as he proved in About a Boy and In Good Company, is better at making it real than at making it real funny.