The Fockers Trinity

June, 14 2013

The third installment in the popular Fockers franchise comes out just in time for the holidays. Like its predecessors, Little Fockers sets out to have fun with a Christian-Jewish love story. In the 2000 original, the $500 million-grossing Meet the Parents, Jewish nurse Greg aka Gaylord or sometimes Gay Focker (Ben Stiller) wants to marry Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) and is forced to confront uptight WASP culture as represented by her father, ex-CIA agent Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and his demure wife Dina (Blythe Danner). In the even bigger moneymaker, the 2004 Meet the Fockers, the Byrnes experience a dizzying culture clash as they get to know Greg’s conspicuously Jewish parents—Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) and Roz (Barbra Streisand). Throughout both films, Greg must endure Jack’s numerous tests of manhood to prove his worth. The humor is often crude with, for example, the juxtaposition of the names Gay and Focker.

At the end of the second movie, Greg and Pam are married, so Little Fockers, due in theaters on December 22, features that union’s results, twins Henry and Samantha. Jack continues to question Greg’s ability to head the family. As usual, much of the comedy is physical. Greg is clumsy and ineffectual: When he carves a turkey, he cuts himself, and blood spurts across the table onto his wife’s white blouse.

Despite the silliness, the movies portray the shifting role of Jews in American culture. Jews have previously been portrayed as outside the majority culture; their masculinity is different than the norm; they are neurotic, weak and effeminate—a continuation of the anti-Semitic tradition that questioned Jewish maleness, says Daniel Itzkovitz, director of American Studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts and contributor to the 2006 Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture. The movies give an “unwholesome perception of Jews,” claims one commentator, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi in California, by portraying them as “heinous caricatures.”

Fockers’ writer Joe Hamburg however, defends his films’ non-Jews. They “are not anti-Semitic,” he says; it’s just that Greg “feels out of place” in a WASP world in which bulletproof Kevlar surrounding the family van is the answer to paranoia, and lie detector tests and sodium pentathlon injections are the means to truth. Life is serious. Pam warns Greg, “Humor is entirely wasted on my parents.”

Basically, the WASP, Jack, is a jerk and the Jew, Greg, is a schlemiel, and the schlemiel wins. Actually, Greg is “a post modern schlemiel,” says Itzkovitz. Although he has the attributes of the stereotypical nerdy fumbler, “American society is now identifying with him.” He adds: “Non-Jews as well as Jews are feeling unsettled in the 21st century.” They realize they are not all-powerful, like Rambo, but anxious and insecure like Greg, whose warmth, decency and caring attract Pam.

Greg does not wear his Jewishness on his sleeve. In fact in Meet the Parents, he never brings it up. Others always do it for him. In one telling scene, Kevin (Pam’s blond, blue-eyed former fiancé) is building a wooden arch for Pam’s sister’s wedding and explains to Jack and Greg how Jesus inspires him: “He was a carpenter and if I want to follow in somebody’s footsteps, why not the steps of our lord and savior?” Jack immediately interjects, “Greg’s Jewish.” Kevin replies, “So was J.C.” In Meet the Fockers, we learn that Kevin was so impressed by Greg that he became an “interfaith” minister who not only performs Greg and Pam’s wedding under a huppa, but sings the Kiddush in Hebrew.

The Fockers represent an “upsurge in Jewish identity” in films, says Samantha Baskind, associate professor of art at Cleveland State University in Ohio, whose research focuses on the Jewish role in 20th-century art and culture. Greg’s parents, Bernie and Roz, are modern variations of traditional stereotypes. Roz, a sex therapist, recalls Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose German-accented sexual advice electrified radio and TV audiences during the 1980s. Rather than being overbearing, overachieving and materialistic, Roz cares most about her son’s relationships, particularly his sex life.

Bernie, who gave up his legal career to become a stay-at-home father, is the image of the highly involved Jewish parent, but he’s most proud of how Greg pursues his own goals, not someone else’s. The Fockers may liberally sprinkle Yiddish into their conversation, show off their scrapbook displaying Greg’s foreskin, and embarrass their son by talking too much about sex, but they are open and humane. Their frailties are not humiliating but humanizing, making them “the standard bearers of a new multiculturalism,” says Itzkovitz. They are “fockerized Jews,” says Baskind.

Roz and Bernie initially shock Pam’s parents, but like Greg, they too triumph by demonstrating their humanity. When at the end of Meet the Fockers, Jack can turn to Roz for assistance, he has been “fockerized.” The Fockers films, says New York Chabad Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of Shtick Shift, capture how “Jews have become more American and America has become more Jewish.”

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