Dont bother meeting the Fockers

There is only one thing that moviegoers will take with them from the innocuous and insipid sequel, “Meet the Fockers.”

Barbra Streisand looks fabulous.

In fact, a murmur fairly ripples through the audience when Babs makes her first appearance some 20 minutes into the flick.

Playing a Florida sex therapist for couples in their 60s and beyond, Streisand exudes a playfulness and vitality that are irresistible. (The beloved comic Shelley Berman plays one of her patients, in a cameo we could have lived without.)

Alas, Streisand’s entrance — eight years after her last performance in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” — is the high point of “Meet the Fockers,” which opened this week at Bay Area theaters. This follow-up to the 2000 comedy “Meet the Parents” is rife with the farcical gags that despoil American comedy these days: poop jokes, dog and cat antics and a cursing baby.

Filmgoers fleeing family gatherings this season will find a genial and relentlessly inoffensive situation comedy. They may, however, be dismayed by the sight of iconic actors expending their energies on a script that Billy Wilder would have used to make paper airplanes.

“Meet the Fockers” is structured as a good-humored confrontation between two equally ridiculous lifestyles. Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner reprise their “Meet the Parents” roles as Jack and Dina Byrnes, upright and uptight WASPs from (the formerly “restricted” burg of) Oyster Bay, N.Y. Underscoring their establishment credentials, Jack is a retired CIA operative.

Enlisted for the sequel, Roz and Bernie Focker (Streisand and an equally loosey-goosey Dustin Hoffman) are Jewish exponents of the let-it-all-hang-out school. Effusive, affectionate and unabashedly amorous, the Fockers embody the kind of spontaneity and chaos that the Byrnes determinedly extinguished from their lives decades ago.

The two couples are brought together at the Fockers’ Florida home by the impending marriage of their children, Greg (Ben Stiller) and Pam (Teri Polo). These thirty-something lovers are pallid, banal figures who serve mainly as straight men for their parents’ shenanigans.

I expected to amuse myself by toting up the Jewish in-jokes and asides, but it was slim pickings. And that includes an awful bit of business involving a foreskin I’d like to forget.

Stiller’s vapid Greg, like Adam Sandler’s nice-guy chef in “Spanglish,” is so assimilated that it’s impossible to discern any residual Jewish identity. A framed bar mitzvah tallit hangs on the wall of fame that Bernie has built to honor his son’s “accomplishments,” but one can’t imagine Greg wearing it.

Streisand injects the occasional Yiddish word into her conversations, but by and large the actress sidesteps the done-to-death Jewish-mother stereotype. Alas, there isn’t much she can do with a cringeworthy but blessedly brief exchange during which Roz instructs the Byrnes how to pronounce the Hebrew “ch” sound.

As part of its strategy to avoid anything resembling social commentary that might dampen the proceedings, “Meet the Fockers” treats intermarriage as a non-issue. It may not go down so well in Crown Heights or the Bible Belt, but the ecumenical “can’t we all get along” theme is a staple of holiday comedies.

There is pleasure to be gained watching stars such as Streisand, Hoffman and De Niro enjoying themselves without losing their dignity. (Hoffman is far more at ease playing off Streisand than he was opposite Lily Tomlin earlier this year in “I Heart Huckabees.”) They can’t transform pedestrian hijinks into high comedy, but neither do they desecrate the memory of their extraordinary roles in the ’60s and ’70s.

Streisand, more than her co-stars, still has the authority and brio to give great performances in major films. Here’s hoping she starts getting offered better scripts.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.