LOS ANGELES - It's rare to find critics and audiences agreeing so heartily on anything. But such is the power of "Little Fockers."
Critics thought the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro threequel was one of the worst movies of 2010. And for once, audiences didn't disagree with them - more than a third of the moviegoers who turned out for the second film didn't show up this time. Those that did weren't impressed: They gave it a middling B-minus CinemaScore.
When a film performs this badly, there are usually more culprits than a bank-robber convention. And so the post-holiday Hollywood chatter went. The in-law antagonism felt overplayed. Dustin Hoffman needed to be dialed in at the end of the production. The movie's release was pushed back from the summer, a sign of a problem if not a problem in itself. Third installments of live-action franchises rarely work. And adding young children to any comedy franchise, on the big or small screen, is the surest sign of a shark-jump.
But on this long list of factors, it's worth looking in one place in particular: the director's chair. Both "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" were helmed by Jay Roach, the rare filmmaker who can balance the slapstick and the subtle in comedy. Including "Parents" and "Fockers," Roach (who has an Emmy under his belt for the dramatic "Recount") is responsible for four comedy mega-hits that critics liked nearly as much as audiences ("Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" are the other two).
Roach decided not to go for the hat-trick on "Fockers" - he learned his lesson, apparently, from the last time he tried that, on "Austin Powers in Goldmember" - and decided to make "Dinner for Schmucks" instead. So in his place the production went with Paul Weitz, the "American Pie" director, who hasn't done much funny on this side of the 21st century (last credit: "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant").
But it would be unfair to blame Weitz entirely. Many who've gone before him have also stumbled. Often they spin their wheels trying to do something more serious, a la Judd Apatow and "Funny People." Or they simply find their touch, and the times, suddenly eluding them, something that was painfully obvious with James L. Brooks' recent "How Do You Know."
John Hughes was one of the few to buck the trend, but that was a different time, and his was a different comedy. Shawn Levy was considered an exception too, but then came "Date Night."
The lack of reliability is why comedies so often get made on the basis of their star (and why, in turn, every third comedy in this country involves Adam Sandler). When that star does come on board, studios often don't even bother trying with a real filmmaker and just bring in a director who doesn't cost much and knows when to get out of the way.
Weitz is better than that. But he's not that much better. His punchless movie, in a season of punchless movies, makes you realize that if someone's going to make a comedy they should try to get a Jay Roach. Or maybe they shouldn't try at all.