Nonstop in-law animosity would seem to have exhausted its comedic potential with "Little Fockers," a lazy attempt to milk a few more laughs and bucks from the enormously lucrative property spawned 10 years ago by "Meet the Parents." Good for a few incidental chuckles at best, this Paul Weitz-directed romp piles on the strained shenanigans as it pushes Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro toward what one hopes will be a climactic showdown. While some customer loyalty is to be expected, the unmistakable whiff of franchise fumes should keep pic out of the high-end neighborhood ($279 million domestic) occupied by "Meet the Fockers."
Whereas the first two films followed the ever well-meaning, always frustrated Greg Focker (Stiller) and bride-to-be Pam (Teri Polo) on prenuptial trips to Long Island and Florida, "Little Fockers" zeroes in on the Chicago-based couple as they approach middle age and deal with the usual challenges related to work, finances and the raising of their twin children, Samantha (Daisy Tahan) and Henry (Colin Baiocchi). Greg is under considerable pressure to make some extra dough, renovate the family's dream home and find a good school for the kids -- all of which is exacerbated, of course, by the presence of Pam's overbearing ex-CIA dad, Jack Byrnes (De Niro), who has flown in with sweetly long-suffering wife Dina (Blythe Danner) for their grandchildren's birthday party.
While the married-with-children angle would seem to offer a wealth of fresh material, pic falls back more tiresomely than ever on the persona of its top-billed star, continually poking fun at De Niro's rich history as an avatar of cinematic aggression. Thus, when Jack suffers a heart attack and suspects he may not be long for this world, he anoints Greg "the Godfocker," charging him with the sacred responsibility of protecting and maintaining the Byrnes family line. Sometime later, Harvey Keitel turns up in a wink-wink cameo that exists solely to justify the ostensibly hilarious sight of the two "Taxi Driver" nemeses coming to verbal blows.
De Niro submits to all this self-referencing nonsense with a straight if scowling face, and gamely plays along with one especially dignity-sapping sequence that makes this the second comedy of the season, after "Love & Other Drugs," to feature misuse of an erectile-dysfunction aid. Other gags are simply unpleasant, visible from a mile away (it's never a good sign when someone has to carve a turkey in one of these movies), and of no consequence in terms of sustaining comic tension. While its Jay Roach-directed predecessors were predicated on meetings between strangers and staged for maximum discomfort, awkwardness and anxiety, "Little Fockers" feels like just another cute kiddie comedy -- packed with fart and vomit jokes that promptly dissipate by the next scene, and prone to spouting endless variations on "Gaylord Focker" in the absence of bigger laughs.
Pic largely jettisons the WASP-Jew culture clash that was a subtext of "Meet the Parents" and an explicit dynamic of "Meet the Fockers": As Greg's wacky bohemian parents, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand are seen only sporadically, although Owen Wilson duly returns as the super-successful golden boy whom Jack still fancies (10 years later?) a better choice of husband for Pam.
Script by John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey (replacing Hamburg's regular co-writer, Jim Herzfeld)attempts a sincere look at the challenges of raising a family and keeping a marriage healthy, especially given the temptations posed by a way-too-flirtatious drug rep (Jessica Alba) at the hospital where Greg works. The softer edge is also attributable to Weitz, who, before his recent forays into fantasy, helmed such serious-minded comedies as "In Good Company" and "About a Boy" (with brother Chris).
Result, however, simply feels timid, unsurprising and conservative-minded in all respects; if we must have "Little Fockers," a certain daring, out-there quality would not have been unwelcome. Jack's health problems briefly raise the specter of death, and at multiple points, one wishes the filmmakers had the courage to take these intimations of mortality to their logical conclusion and let the old bastard succumb already, franchise longevity be damned. As it is, pic ends on a note that all but promises another sequel.
Tech credits are standard, Los Angeles doing the best it can to double as Chicago. Laura Dern has a welcome walk-on role as the head of an elite private school, and perfs overall are well tuned under the circumstances. Amusing end-credits sequence merely underlines the fact that this franchise's best days are well behind it.