Meeting the In-Laws

The Line Up

When I first finished the wedding movies – before I decided to methodize the quarantine movie journey – I knew the next movie I wanted to watch was Shrek 2. At first I was ready to squish Shrek 2 into the wedding movie marathon, but I quickly accepted that while Shrek 2 has a wedding, it isn’t a wedding movie. Shrek 2 is not about a wedding, Shrek 2 is about meeting the in-laws. This realization led me to the next movie category. In fact, the transition Shrek 2 provided is what kicked off the quarantine movie journey as a concept. If I make 5 more posts or if I make 500, it’ll all be thanks to Shrek 2.

 

My selection of “meeting the in-laws” movies are high spirited, and definitely keep the mood light, consistent with wedding movies. The category is far cringier than wedding movies. The comedic beats of “meeting the in-laws” movies tend to be at the expense of a protagonist desperately trying to impress their future family members. The eagerness to make a good impression somehow makes everything worse. Uncomfortable secrets are alway revealed, harsh words are often exchanged. All major players make ethically questionable decisions that make the merging of families seem impossible. In the end, all tends to be forgiven. Formerly opposing parties accept, and even indulge in each other’s quirks. 

This batch included the greatest sequel of all time Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson Kelly Asbury Conrad Vernon), Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach), Sweet Home Alabama (Andy Tennant).

City VS Swamp

A clash of life styles is mandatory for for “Meeting the in-laws” movies. Shrek 2 and Sweet Home Alabama depict the classic battle between city and small town (or swamp) living. Shrek 2 opens with a comedic montage depicting the idyllic, fart-filled honeymoon of newlyweds Shrek (Mike Meyers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz). The swamp lifestyle is on proud display. Just as they settle into their new life they are called to a “Far Far Away” city so that Fiona’s parents may celebrate the new couple. This is bad news for Shrek, who loves nothing more than being undisturbed in his swamp.

The busy, highly metropolitan setting of Far Far Away makes the unexpected visit to in-laws even worse for Shrek. A disastrous first dinner features Shrek and his father in law, King Harold (John Cleese) passively aggressively dishing out life style criticisms at one another as they aggressively handle food from the banquet. This argument is a silly depiction of the classic characterization of city folk as well mannered, but snobbish and people from the country (or swamp) as uncivilized, but down to earth. Shrek is a judgemental in-law’s worst nightmare: he does not give a shit what people think of him. His love for his wife, Fiona motivates him to work towards a positive relationship with her parents. Shrek is an amazing husband and role model. He is confident and he has strong values, but he is willing to compromise and make himself uncomfortable to better the life of his wife. We should all be more like Shrek.

Melanie Smooter (Reese Witherspoon) of Sweet Home Alabama lacks Shrek’s strong moral compass. Melanie is so eager to detach from her humble, small town origins that she uses the name Melanie Carmichael in her city life. If city Melanie is to thrive and marry into a political dynasty, she must tie up some loose ends from country Melanie’s past. She has hidden her true familial identity from her fiance, and her future mother in law, Kate Hennings (Candice Bergen), who happens to be the Mayor of NYC. Kate is elite and skeptical – perhaps rightfully so. No woman could ever be good enough for her son. Kate’s coldness plays in contrast to the warmth, charm, and humour of small town.  Her personification of city culture is unwelcoming, overly ambitious, and impersonal.

The true love story of Sweet Home Alabama is that of Melanie falling back in love with her small town. Over the course of the film, Melanie is confronted with the successes and merits of people she considered bumpkins. Melanie never really faces the reckoning she deserves for being so condescending towards her family and childhood friends. She is welcomed back into her small town life with open arms. By the end of the film she has a much more Shrek like attitude of self acceptance.  

Competing Masculinities

City and small town identities are often tied to competing portrayals of masculinity. In Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie’s city beue Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey) is a prestigious provider. Her country love, Jake Perry (Josh Lucas) is a rugged protector. Similar identities are prescribed to King Harold (provider), and Shrek (protector) in Shrek 2. Small towns and swamps easily triumph as hosting a less toxic version of masculinity. They may be gruff, and hot headed, but Shrek and Jake Perry are also straight forward, genuine, and their love for their partners is unconditional. City fiances and fathers are bland at best and deceitful at worst.

In Meet the Fockers we see a different take on competing fatherly archetypes. Jack Byrnes (Robert DeNiro) is a former FBI agent and the distrusting father in law of the series protagonist, Greg/Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller). Jack’s version of fatherhood is conservative, rigid, and unemotional.  While he has some comically bizarre approaches to child rearing, he takes himself 100% seriously and has no sense of humor about anything. On the other hand, Greg Focker’s father, Bernie Focker (Dustin Hoffman) is new agey, sex postive, and overtly emotional. Meet the Fockers is a 2 hour long pissing contest between two men with incompatible views on masculinity. The only belief they share, is the belief that father knows best.

Family Secrets

My most surprising and exciting discover was that all of these films centred around a family secret that was a motivating force behind a central character’s actions. In both Meet the Parents movies Jack Byrne assumes there is an unsavory secret lurking in Greg Fockers past. Greg Focker is the protagonist, so the audience is guided to sympathize with him and route for him. Still, the way the story is told keeps the audience hooked on Jack Byrne’s investigation and asking many of the same questions. Why is there no record of Greg Focker taking the MCATS? Who is the father of Jorge Villalobos – a teenager who bears a striking resemblance to Greg Focker AND is the child of the Fockers’ housekeeper? The resolutions of Jack Byrne’s investigations are comical misunderstandings, and the audience moment of discovery lines up with Jack’s. Jack’s theories never pan out, and he has to eat crow in both films. In Meet the Fockers, there actually is a family secret being kept from Jack, but Jack is so busy investigating Greg Focker’s potential love child that he never catches a whiff of the real secret. The investigations in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers suggest that Jack is a terrible FBI agent, which is a direct contrast to how his work experience is portrayed.

In Shrek 2 the family mystery is kept by King Harold. It is a well kept secret, not even wife and daughter know. The audience is also kept in the dark until the final act of the film, but it is clear to see that his deep dark secret is motivating his questionable decisions. Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) is a spoiled brat, so why is King Harold trying to get his beloved daughter Fiona married to this childish dude instead of staying happily married to Shrek?  The lengths Harold goes to in order to appease a demanding, karen-like Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) informs the audience that he has something big is at stake. The unraveling of this mystery is the most intriguing and successful of any of the movies in this selection. This engrossing plot line is just one of many elements that make Shrek 2 the best sequel of all time.

Conclusion

This batch of movies about meeting the in laws is silly and light hearted. They are full of eye-roll moments. You will want to yell at the protagonists as they continuously make fools of themselves. The small town vs city tension of Sweet Home Alabama and the competition between liberal vs conservation parenting ideas of Meet the Fockers tackle touchy, contemporary topics, but the rudimentary depictions of these real tensions might not satisfy an audience today. This is a great selection if you are looking for a casual laugh. If you are looking for food for thought, I would take a look below at some of the other movies in the category. Of the movies I did watch, Shrek 2’s characterization of culture clashing and compromise feels the most genuine. Shrek 2 is by far the best of the “meeting the-in laws” bunch, and it is the best sequel of all time.

Other Movies to Watch: Monster in Law, Get Out, The Bird Cage, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Guess Who? The Family Stone, Ready or Not