The notion of “upstaging” someone comes from the theatre. If you as an actor walk upstage, away from the auditorium, you force the person you’re addressing to turn their back on the audience. The audience can’t see the actor’s face, it can’t hear him/her that well either. It drives actors crazy. It’s a harder thing to nail down on film, but it’s something Robert De Niro is great at, especially when a comedian is involved. In Meet the Parents the funnyman in question is Ben Stiller, playing the poor sap back to “meet the parents” of his intended (Teri Polo). De Niro plays Jack Byrnes, the mutha of a father, subjecting Stiller’s character, Greg, to the sort of weekend that would have you waking up sweating for the rest of your life (“I have nipples, Greg, do you think you could milk me?”). De Niro the actor, meanwhile, is putting Stiller through something similar, the same sly wringer he used on Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy, and Billy Crystal in Analyze This. It’s become a standard line against De Niro that his later work relies too heavily on mannerism – he’s acting rather than reacting. But watching him raise his game is always fascinating (Jennifer Lawrence forced him into doing it in Silver Linings Playbook). So sit back, enjoy the humour, but most of all watch the tussle as De Niro deploys every tic, gurn and volcanic pause in the book, utterly refusing to be outdone in a comedy by some wiseguy who tells jokes for a living.
© Steve Morrissey 2013