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MOVIE REVIEW

'Fockers' fumbles: For this, we waited?

What a waste.

I mean, we've been looking forward to this one, right? ''Meet the Fockers" is the follow-up to 2000's ''Meet the Parents," a much-loved audience-pleaser that had even film critics overlooking its weak spots. The same director (Jay Roach of the ''Austin Powers" movies) corralled the same cast, including Ben Stiller as hapless male nurse Gaylord ''Greg" Focker and Robert De Niro as Jack Byrnes, retired CIA spook and ultimate nightmare future father-in-law. Then the producers upped the ante by casting as Greg's parents the king and queen of neurotic '60s-movie gawgeousness, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. Uptight Bobby D. (and Blythe Danner -- Gwyneth's mom, for Pete's sake -- as his WASPy wife) going head to head with Dusty and Babs at their shpritziest? It couldn't miss.

It did and it does. I'm sad to report that ''Meet the Fockers" is a resolutely average sequel, several subbasements below the first film in both comic inspiration and energy. Given the rare alignment of stars -- De Niro and Hoffman in their third film together, Streisand in her first in eight years -- it can only be considered a disappointment.

There are laughs here, the easy kind, and if you're looking for avery unassuming night at the movies, you may feel your money was well spent. But there's a sizable difference between the comedy of family mortification -- setting girlfriend's parents' roof on fire in the first movie; dad telling your in-laws how you lost your virginity in this one -- and the comedy of poop jokes and toddlers saying dirty words. And I'm not sure how to break this to the screenwriters, but repeating the same joke five times in a row doesn't make it funnier.

The setup throbs with potential. Greg and fiancee Pam (Teri Polo) are bringing her parents down to Florida to meet his, traveling in a mobile-McMansion that is Jack's pride and joy. Along for the ride is the Byrnes's grandson, Little Jack (Spencer and Bradley Pickren), whom big Jack is caring for under a strict baby-improvement regimen: infant sign-language lessons, classical music, the works.

The Fockers are everything the Byrneses aren't: messy, hug-prone, emotionally expulsive. The first words out of Bernie's mouth are ''Can you believe I fathered this beautiful son with one testicle?" He's a stay-at-home dad; Roz is a sex therapist to Florida seniors; together they're every conservative's comic nightmare of rampant liberalism, down to a ''Wall of Gaylord" in their home that celebrates their son's mediocrity.

So far, so very good, and Hoffman, grinning like a big baby, is at the top of his game. But De Niro (who produced both films) pulls his head into his neck, pastes on an exaggerated grimace, and coasts on the fumes of ''Parents." Danner is stuck in a thankless secondary role (the same goes for Polo), Stiller has played the brow-furrowing boob in one too many movies, and Streisand -- well, it's almost criminal how underused she is here. Roz is a warm, oversexed noodge, and that's it, that's the joke. The script gives one of our culture's rare forces of nature no decent dialogue and little room to play the meshugeneh yenta (let alone the ongepatshket mekhuteneste). Also, I hate to be rude, but isn't it just a little unnerving that the woman, at 62, has not one single visible wrinkle?

''Meet the Fockers" doesn't have a plot so much as gags that are set up like bowling pins and then knocked over. Some count as solid lowbrow strikes: the scene in which the Fockers' yappy dog meets the Byrnes's cat in the RV toilet, for instance, and a long,very funny sequence in which Greg is left to care for Little Jack and (wait for it) everything goes wrong. But more often the movie throws gutterballs: A tangent about Jack obsessing over a teenager (Ray Santiago) he thinks is Greg's illegitimate son is particularly tedious.

Whose fault, in the end? Writers John Hamburg, Jim Herzfeld, and Marc Hyman, for letting this cast down, and editor Jon Poll for pacing the film like a hangover. Producer De Niro, who has yet to serve De Niro the actor in any meaningful way (unless you think ''The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is meaningful). And, just possibly, the audiences who may yet turn ''Fockers" into a hit and thus allow Hollywood to continue in its delusion that popular comedy is the same as good comedy. Good comedy is a mysterious quality best embodied here by the surprise appearance of an actor from the first film, who gets more genuine laughs in his two minutes of screen time than anyone else gets in the other 93.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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