The strangest inside joke I have ever come across in a movie occurs in the altogether execrable "Little Fockers," the third installment in the star-stuffed but woefully unfunny "comic" saga of a Jewish male nurse who enters into an uptight WASP family whose patriarch is a total paranoid.
That's the part Robert De Niro plays. Badly. Really, really badly.
The inside joke has De Niro landing heavily -- and more than once, with the verbal equivalent of a wink -- on the word "shepherd."
In case you've forgotten, De Niro directed one of the most remarkable -- and genuinely haunting -- movies of the past decade, however underrated it turned out to be: "The Good Shepherd." He didn't star in it, Matt Damon did as a young man on the rise in the secret WASP establishment that created the CIA.
In this movie, the actor whom America mostly knows as an inhabitant of Martin Scorsese's urban, often ethnic imagination, reconfirmed that, as a director, he was a subtle artist, the son of a painter and a man who could create both a subtle and epic canvas about an ethnic world totally different from the one that includes all his greatest triumphs as an actor. De Niro's "The Good Shepherd" was the ultimate corrective about one of the larger and more baffling talents in American movies. Its message was "everything you think you know about Robert De Niro is wrong."
Why, then, would De Niro want to refer to one of his greatest, subtlest and most revealing achievements in one of his worst, by far?
And make no mistake. De Niro couldn't possibly be pushing this movie harder on the public if he tried. He's on the cover of the current Esquire magazine. He hosted "Saturday Night Live" to plug his putatively comic self. And even, in the company of comic co-star Dustin Hoffman, endured David Letterman's hilarious way of teeing off on diffident, self-serious actors on his show.
His financial "deal" on the movie -- i.e. his piece of the box office from the first dollar -- must be truly formidable for De Niro to not only go to the well for it but dive right in without a scuba tank. Either that, or he's got some other idealistic deal in the works that requires him trashing his own talent so painfully and publicly. Perhaps it involves support for the very good annual film festival he created in Tribeca. Perhaps it involves another movie as unusual and fine and off the beaten path as "The Good Shepherd" that, nevertheless, needs some indulgence from the Hollywood money boys who look for a behemoth bottom line from De Niro somewhere in return.
So here it is, "Little Fockers," the newest in the "Fockers" saga that is little more than the somewhat mind-boggling 21st century update of the corny old "Abie's Irish Rose" idea: the nice Jewish boy who falls for a shicksah.
You can understand why Ben Stiller might feel attached to the part of the nice Jewish boy. His own parents, in real life, are a kind of Abie's, etc. union -- Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, the little Jewish guy and his strapping, tough-talking Irish wife who made a pretty good comedy act out of their union back in the day. With real parents like that, a guy like Ben Stiller might have a lot more faith in this tale than it otherwise deserves.
Teri Polo plays his blond WASP wife, now the mother of two. Jessica Alba plays the new, sensational, hot-bodied temptation to stray from the marital bower.
De Niro is his suspicious, paranoid, overbearing father-in-law. Blythe Danner is the lovely mother-in-law who really needs her oppressive husband to shut up a lot more.
The nurse's own parents, as always in Fockerland, are played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, who only really come into this movie in its final half hour. As always, they are the genuine comic relief in a movie that calls itself a "comedy" but is, in reality, a two-hour condescendiing view of just how debased (and/or tolerant) the American movie comedy audience has become.
The plot concerns an ineptly buffooning De Niro, who has been convinced by a little senior citizen angina that his family is going to need a new patriarch when he's gone. So he worries whether his sissy son-in-law has the right stuff to measure up and become the "Godfocker" he needs to be.
Maybe there was an actual movie somewhere in this megaplex garbage with the feloniously overqualified cast.
The one, though, that I really want to see would be about three genuine legends of the American screen -- De Niro, Hoffman and Streisand -- deciding that they want to sink this low in the first place.
A fantasy explaining that might be a heck of a movie.
A final word about the two-star rating: It's generous. Season of good will and all.
2 stars (out of 4)
Robert De Niro, Ben Stilller, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner, Jessica Alba and Teri Polo in the third installment of the supposedly comic saga of a Jewish male nurse who marries into an uptight WASP family.
Rated PG-13 for raunchy adolescent humor and language.
Now playing in area theaters.