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Meet the Fockers. Twenty-five, thirty years earlier, a cast of Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Barbra Streisand would have tilted the earth's axis. Nowadays they -- or at any rate Hoffman and Streisand, pickups for the sequel to Meet the Parents, as the hippie-dippy, touchie-feelie, loosey-goosey parents of the groom-to-be -- are just riding the coat-tails of Ben Stiller, happy to prolong their careers and to pretend they are partly responsible for a financial windfall that would have been infinitesimally smaller with Ron Leibman and Lainie Kazan in the parts. To do so, they have only to swallow their pride, if any, at such moments as when the preserved snipping from baby's circumcision gets catapulted into the fondue pot (Hoffman has been entrusted with the compulsory punch line: "Anyone for Chinese?") or when playing second banana to an undersized and oversexed pooch who will hump a foot, a cat, a doll, anything. As if all this were not demeaning enough, the two newcomers are introduced on screen via answering machine. De Niro, by comparison, comes off as almost dignified. Everything's relative.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. With, more factually, Bill Murray in the role of Zissou, an over-the-hill, or over-the-wave, oceanographer cum filmmaker, a cut-rate Cousteau: "What happened to me? Did I lose my talent? Am I ever going to be any good again?" Director Wes Anderson, a critical darling and "indie" bellwether for Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, took a lot of money from Disney for the sake of some animated marine life and a marvelous cross-section set of the oceangoing vessel, the Belafonte (shown off to excellent effect on a single-take trek from the belly to the deck). To his credit, he hasn't let the larger investment alter the size of his ambition. He still goes after the muffled chuckle in a quiet corner (i.e., no foreskin in the fondue), and he aims, foremost and hindmost, to please his loyal followers instead of the anonymous crowd. The action scenes, either beyond him or beneath him, are so ridiculous (one-man-army Murray against a boatload of cut-throat pirates) that they play as if they must be fantasies, except they're not. Maybe they're a "comment" on contemporary action films in general. The bonding between father and long-lost son (Owen Wilson with an uncertain Kentucky accent) takes an unexpected turn at an unexpected juncture. And the quest for revenge against a man-eating sea monster ends not with a bang but with an ooh-ahh. Willem Dafoe has more than his share of good moments as a German crew member with a thin skin; and Seu Jorge as another crew member, endlessly strumming a guitar and singing David Bowie tunes in Portuguese, and Cate Blanchett as a pregnant journalist with a two-shades-too-dark suntan, have their moments, too. The whole thing, though, seems quite daftly pointless. Or pointlessly daft. In honesty, if you've seen the theatrical trailer, you've the seen the best of it, or anyway a fair sampling of it.

Beyond the Sea. Vanity film from Kevin Spacey, directing himself in the part of pop star Bobby Darin in a free-form, fantasy-riddled biopic, throwing in a gratuitious impression of Jerry Lewis in the bargain (not bad), and doing his own singing in a mellower, droopier, croonier style possibly more suited to a biography of Vic Damone or Al Martino. The objection, voiced on the set of an autobiographical film-within-the- film, "He's too old to play this part," will not be answered by the rhetorical question, "How can you be too old to play yourself?" You can be too old to play "yourself" if you are really Kevin Spacey and not Bobby Darin, and you are already eight years older than Darin at the end of his life, never mind when he was recording "Mack the Knife" or courting Sandra Dee. (Kate Bosworth, whom I myself likened to Sandra Dee in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, fails to measure up when trying to cram her hoof into the actual glass slipper.) Spacey does manage to win some sympathy -- no small feat -- for the teen idol's makeover into the mustached, sideburned, wigless, and politically involved Bob Darin of the late Sixties (a sudden cousin to Bob Dylan), perhaps partly because his physical resemblance is closer at that point. But at all points we are conscious of contemplating not the life and legacy of Bobby Darin but the chutzpah of Kevin Spacey. Not without interest of its own.

Darkness snuck up on me unawares, and Fat Albert I would consider seeing only at gunpoint. Even then I might decide the time had finally come to put me out of my misery.

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