“Meet the Fockers” was not universally loved upon its premiere. It was kinda the opposite; the reviews around the time were generally quite poor. The consensus was that the film was nowhere near as good as the original installment, “Meet the Parents.”
Sure, the 2004 sequel didn’t have the initial painful comedy of Greg, Jewish and anxious, meeting the most WASPy family — but there’s still plenty to celebrate about “Meet the Fockers.” Namely: Greg’s Jewish parents, Roz and Bernie.
“A doctor and a lawyer! What’s there to worry about?” Jack Bryne, played by the suave and sophisticated Robert DeNiro, comments to Ben Stiller’s nervous Gaylord “Greg” Focker before meeting his parents. Jack is the father of Greg’s fiancée Pam (Teri Polo), and this is the long-awaited meeting between the Fockers and the Byrnes.
Immediately, the viewers are set up to think that these people — a doctor and a lawyer — are going to be stereotypical Jewish parents contrasted by the ice cool and classy DeNiro. We know that they are Jewish, that they are in “kosher” professions, and that they wanted their son to follow in their footsteps.
However, “Meet the Fockers” expertly flips viewers’ assumptions on their head, all the while still portraying Greg’s parents as deeply Jewish.
Jewish fathers on the big screen — think Jim’s dad in “American Pie” (Eugene Levy), or Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” (Chaim Topol) — are typically portrayed as neurotic and controlling, often with a desire to be more. Portrayals of Jewish mothers are often wrapped up in pushiness and bossiness, a curious intersection where sexism and antisemitism meet. (Think of Howard’s mother, Mrs. Debbie Wolowitz, in “The Big Bang Theory,” or the satire of a Jewish mother, Naomi, in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”)
But Roz and Bernie are none of these stereotypes. For starters, Greg’s dad Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) is a former lawyer who actually retired to be a stay-at-home dad, and Roz or “Rozala” (Barbra Streisand) is no typical therapist — she’s a sex therapist. This gorgeous couple reject the gender roles that are prevalent in traditionally depicted Jewish marriages on the big screen. They aren’t uptight, neurotic or conservative. Rather, they’re quite the opposite — there are plenty of references to their liberal, hippie sensibilities. (Plus, Babs has an insane kaftan collection throughout the film.)
Roz and Bernie wear their Jewishness openly and proudly. We get to see Roz with her natural curls out on display — and we get actual footage of her carefully towel drying them! Here was curly Jewish hair representation way before “Broad City” or the works of Jenny Slate.
Oh, and they are definitely very, very much in love. Their openness may be a bit much for poor Greg, but they look like they are having a lot more fun than the repressed Byrnes. The trampling over and ignoring of boundaries is something that is incredibly Jewish, but never depicted with such warmth and joy.
Rather than get upset that their son is marrying a non-Jewish woman, they embrace her. Bernie and Roz are nothing but thrilled that Greg and Pam have found each other — a sentiment that feels quite powerful from an older Jewish couple. Roz is way more concerned that Greg is not a “so-so lover” and that Pam is regularly climaxing. They are not only liberal in their politics but in their concept of Jewishness. From a mid-2000s comedy, that is beyond refreshing.
Representations of Jewish parents on screen often make them seem that they do not like their children very much — or that their children are constantly disappointing them. As a daughter of two very Jewish parents, my experience has been the opposite. If anything, there is an abundance of love. The Fockers are so unconditionally proud of their child — their celebration of Greg’s 9th place ribbons rings very true to my experience growing up. It’s like the time my mum took me out to lunch even when I did badly on my exams, or the fact my dad will probably send this very piece to every person in his address book. (Hi, Adam, Robin and James.)
In “Meet the Fockers,” we get to see two of the greatest Jewish actors playing an openly eccentric, openly sexual and openly Jewish couple. There is an authenticity here that shouldn’t be taken for granted: Roz and Bernie might just be the greatest Jewish parents in popular culture.
Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “Late Take” in the subject line.