& & by Ed Symkus & & & &

It's been said by this reviewer before: Robert De Niro, someone not exactly known for his comic roles, is one funny fellow, when put in the right movie with the right material. Just a year ago, he completely mastered the part of the anxiety-plagued gangster in Analyze This. A couple of months back, in a film that not nearly enough people saw, he pegged the coveted role of Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Actually, anyone wanting to see prime, very funny De Niro, should track down his early starring role in the edgy and daring Hi, Mom!

In this, his newest comic exercise -- which, as he's wont to do these days, he co-produced -- he plays Jack Byrnes, loving father and husband, retired florist/CIA agent and every guy's nightmare of a prospective father-in-law.

Enter Greg Focker (Ben Stiller in his nervous nebbish mode), very much in love with Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), you-know-who's overprotected daughter. It doesn't take very long to realize that once Greg and Pam set off to meet her folks, to ask her dad for her hand in marriage, pretty much nothing is going to go right for Greg, including the pronunciation of his last name.

It doesn't matter that Pam pulls Dad aside in a quiet moment and says, "Be nice to this one, okay?" Dad has his ways, and he's not about to stray from them. There are plenty of things for him to be concerned about toward this strange little man who wants to make off with his first-born daughter. First of all, he's a nurse -- not a doctor. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he's a dog man, not a cat man. Dad just can' t figure this guy out. Mom (Blythe Danner) is a bit too ditzy to bother trying.

This is a funny movie from the get-go. De Niro's stern, hardboiled countenance helps -- nobody plays serious and threatening as funny as he does -- as does Stiller's hapless do-gooder who just can't do anything right.

But the secret ingredient of the film, the factor that is going to make audiences all guffaw as one, is director Jay Roach. Best known so far for helming both Austin Powers films, Roach has a special talent for taking something as quick and simple as a sight gag, then adding layer upon layer on top of it, dragging out a joke far longer than anyone would expect he should, but making the resulting laughs also pile up on top of one another. So the set pieces here are real gems, the kind that might make a few viewers come back to see the film again, just so they can hear the dialogue they missed while laughing.

A lot of credit has to go to the writers -- Jim Herzfeld, who co-wrote Tapeheads, and John Hamburg, who wrote and directed Safe Men -- but it's the director who has taken their material and molded it into something more ridiculous, more crazy and funnier.

Surprisingly, about the only piece of the film that doesn't work very well is the addition of an ex-boyfriend character, the one Pam was "supposed" to marry. It's a double surprise, really. The part of Kevin is rather underwritten; not enough about him is revealed. And he's played by Owen Wilson, he of weirdest-shaped-nose-in-Hollywood fame, and the same Shanghai Noon from Jackie Chan. But Wilson doesn't put enough into his character this time, and leaves him, and us, flat.

But Stiller and De Niro and company don' t have too much trouble keeping all eyes and minds on them -- on Dad's stubborn ways and on Greg's series of misadventures. Hey, he tries his best, but he just seems to end up apologizing all the time. And the director must have said a silent thank you to the powers that be when he realized that both Stiller and De Niro know exactly how to wear a slow burn on their faces to excellent comic effect. Stiller, of course, also knows how to throw a tizzy, and gets to.

The only time the film slows down is when it gets a little serious near the end. The good news is that it's just for a short while, all of the characters' problems are worked out, and steam is once again picked up for an ending that satisfies like a good comedy should.

Two last thoughts on this one: It's a good thing there are people watching out for animals' safety in film these days, because some are put through their paces here. And, for the record, a couple of extra points are long overdue for De Niro, just for uttering a certain line in Rocky and Bullwinkle. If you saw it, you know what it is; if you haven't, it should be out on video very soon, and you'll know it upon hearing it.

Pompeii: The Immortal City @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Through May 3, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
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