'Fockers' Latest Farce on In-Law Relations

You can choose your friends, but not your family. And as Ben Stiller (search) learns again in "Meet the Fockers," (search) you can't choose your in-laws.

Clashes with a significant other's relations are one of the sturdiest sources for Hollywood farce. The territory has been mined endlessly in classics such as "You Can't Take It With You" and "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," modern films like "Shrek 2" and "The Birdcage" and a parade of TV sitcoms, from "All in the Family" and "Bewitched" through "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Next year comes two more takes, one starring Ashton Kutcher as Bernie Mac's prospective son-in-law, the other with Jane Fonda unhappy to have Jennifer Lopez in her family.

What makes encounters with the in-laws such trying experiences?

"In-laws don't get to court. They're thrown together often after the affection between a couple is so strong, there's no way out," said Jay Roach, director of "Meet the Fockers" and its hit predecessor "Meet the Parents." "It's like a forced relationship. How likely is it two sets of couples are going to dig each other when finally forced together?"

In "Meet the Fockers," opening Wednesday, Stiller's Greg Focker finally enjoys an uneasily courteous relationship with his future in-laws, the Byrnes (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner). As Greg and his fiancee (Teri Polo) prepare to wed, now it's time for the reserved Byrnes to meet the irrepressibly liberal Fockers (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand).

Greg's mother is a sex therapist, his father a stay-at-home dad, incomprehensible avocations to secretive ex-CIA operative Jack Byrne. Their weekend together literally becomes a fight between dogs and cats as the Fockers' pooch and the Byrnes' feline have at each other.

Plumbing problems at the Fockers' house leave both clans sharing a single bathroom. The frankness of the huggy-kissy, touchy-feely Fockers mortifies Jack Byrne. And revelations about Greg's earliest sexual experiences put Jack back on the warpath to prove Greg's not good enough for his daughter.

"It's the Marx brothers' `A Night at the Opera' and `Hellzapoppin' and everything in between," said Danner, adding that the awkward first meetings among in-laws is something anyone can relate to.

"Everyone has been there. Everyone worries about whether they'll mesh and whether they'll get along. It's a universal anxiety just to meet one's future parents-in-law," said Danner, who recalled that her mother-in-law threw her for a loop by "cutting my meat for me" at dinner the first time they met.

Fresh on the heels of "Meet the Fockers" and "Shrek 2," in which Mike Myers' ogre found himself the target of a disapproving father-in-law, two more in-law comedies hit theaters in spring 2005.

Kutcher stars in "Guess Who," an update of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which starred Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as white parents coming to terms with their daughter's black fiance (Sidney Poitier). This time out, it's a black father (Bernie Mac) displeased over his daughter's white fiance (Kutcher).

"When you fall in love, it's their own little universe that's perfect and in sync. Then you meet the family, and you don't know much about them when you get there, the parents and siblings and crazy cousins. And it's too late then, because your heart is involved," said "Guess Who" director Kevin Rodney Sullivan. "You look at your new lover and you say, `I love you, but can we really do this?' That's a perfect situation for a movie."

"Monster-in-Law" stars Lopez as an orphaned woman working multiple jobs as an office temp, waitress and dog-walker. Her fiance's snobbish mother (Fonda) finds her an inadequate match for her son.

Displeasure over a child's choice of spouse is a common anxiety, said "Monster-in-Law" director Robert Luketic.

"It's a surreal encounter. All of a sudden, the first time you meet, you have to literally embrace and kiss people about whom you know nothing. I find it a very bizarre and human and primal thing," Luketic said, noting that the notion of in-laws dates back to prehistory, when members of different clans intermarried to avoid inbreeding.

"As uncomfortable as it is, it's essential for the survival of mankind. Let's keep the gene pool rich and varied."

Parents once chose spouses for their children, who were the ones forced to make a life with virtual strangers. The break in that process is perhaps best captured in "Fiddler on the Roof," as dairyman Tevye decries his daughters' departure from tradition as they settle on mates for love without consulting their parents.

"We're beyond the days of prearranged marriages where parents used to get together first and barter," "Meet the Fockers" director Roach said.

"Today, it's about learning to trust your kids to make the decision, then doing your best to make it work. I think a lot of times, when someone hasn't gotten to that place, the conflicts of in-laws can often be about the conflicts between the parents and their own kids."

Still, when parents handle the situation with diplomacy, their children can learn valuable lessons to apply to their own offspring down the road.

Polo, who has a 2-year-old son, said she hopes to use her own parents as role models with her boy's future loves. Her parents held their tongues during several of Polo's failed relationships, only voicing disapproval once the romances ended, she said.

"I think I'll be good at getting along with whoever my son chooses to bring home and that I'll be able to behave and respect his choice," Polo said. "Then once he dumps the tart, I'll say, 'Oh, I knew she was a tart all along."'