franchise is like Chrismukkah, an interfaith mashup serving plum pudding with a latke on the side.
Starring Ben Stiller as the Jewish son-in-law who fails to meet the unreasonable expectations of his gentile father-in-law (Robert De Niro), Little Fockers, third in the series that began with Meet the Parents, comes to bury grudges and inevitably raises them instead.
The best that can be said of the overpopulated and underwritten film is that it gives in-laws, spouses, and spawn a place to put their holiday anxiety and laugh at it. But the humor is sporadic, with Viagra jokes that don't provoke laughs so much as cringes. The situations are so broad as to make those of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner look realistic.
When Jack Byrnes (De Niro), a retired CIA agent, experiences medical troubles, he turns to Greg (Stiller), a nurse, rather than to "Dr. Bob," his other son-in-law, an M.D. A philanderer, Dr. Bob is about to be booted from Jack's "circle of trust."
At the beginning of the movie, Greg is in an unfamiliar place: his father-in-law's good graces. Worried about his health, Jack begins to devise a family succession plan. Is Greg man enough and responsible enough to succeed Jack as the family patriarch?
Enter Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba), vixenish Viagra rep who wants "Nurse Greg" to endorse her company's new product, an erectile-dysfunction drug with beneficial effects for cardiac patients.
Andi flirts shamelessly with Greg. Suspicious Jack worries that he has another unreliable son-in-law on his hands. To Jack's mind, this might not be such a bad thing, because if Greg is out of the way, Jack's daughter Pam (Teri Polo) can get back together with her old beau, Kevin (Owen Wilson), the Zenned-out millionaire who still carries a torch for her.
Some directors throw money at the screen to patch up plotholes. Filmmaker Paul Weitz, taking over for Jay Roach, throws stars.
Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman are back as Greg's parents. Blythe Danner returns as Jack's unusually loosey-goosey spouse. Harvey Keitel has a cameo as a contractor, Laura Dern as a principal of an elite school. And is that Deepak Chopra as Kevin's guru?
The million-dollar cast doesn't make the vulgar penny-ante jokes any funnier.
Little Fockers ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Paul Weitz. With Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner, and Dustin Hoffman. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (sexual candor)
Showing at: area theaters