If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.

Despite being over 20 years old, Jay Roach’s Meet the Parents is still a delightful mismatched family comedy. Pitting Ben Stiller against Robert De Niro in a wedding weekend of mayhem, the film’s comedy set pieces often land on the verge of being over the top without fully going overboard. Although some of the film’s more aggressive targets for comedy may not play as well to a 2023 audience as they did in 2000, there’s a surprising amount of subtext exploring masculinity and turning conventional gender norms on their ear.

And therein lies the secret weapon of Meet the Parents‘ appeal. De Niro and Stiller are two opposing forces in an age-old farce setup. Stiller’s Greg is eager to make a good impression when meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. De Niro’s Jack is the intimidating and protective father whose approval Greg needs in order to propose. This premise sets the expectation that Jack is a no-nonsense, stern head of the family. However, De Niro’s performance subverts that expectation, as Jack is depicted as a caring father with ironclad allegiances to his family and a genuine urge to provide for them.

This unexpected turn for De Niro allows the actor to play up an otherwise rare display of emotional vulnerability that counteracts all the cringeworthy and awkward hijinks of the film’s comedy. In what is arguably the film’s biggest and most memorable set piece, Greg inadvertently destroys Jack’s mother’s urn, leading to the otherwise toilet-trained family cat Jinx using the cremains as his own litter box. This series of events was heavily promoted in the film’s marketing and with good reason; it’s hilarious.

Something that’s easily forgotten is what precedes this stellar punchline. Prior to the farce, the urn is introduced with a bit of awkward humor as Greg mistakes it for a vase. Jack then clarifies that it is his deceased mother’s cremains. This leads to Jack’s emotional and tear-filled recitation of a poem he wrote in memory of his mother. It’s surprisingly refreshing how much vulnerability and emotion is afforded to the character whose stature as the head of the family is the source of the protagonist’s deepest anxiety and insecurity in an unfamiliar place.

What’s particularly striking about Meet the Parents‘ somewhat unconventional take on the intimidating force of the mismatched comedy is how it doesn’t shy away from using masculinity, or lack thereof, as a punchline. A common source of comedy is Greg’s career as a male nurse. Of course, this can be chalked up to the late-1990s’ and early 2000s’ propensity for using masculine insecurity and inherent homophobia for cheap laughs. To an extent, that would be completely accurate as reflected in the real world. But the film never depicts Greg as being humiliated or emasculated for his career choice. It’s always the people around him making light of the fact he’s in a woman-dominated field. In fact, he’s proud to be a nurse, and whenever it’s brought up, he and his girlfriend, Pam (Teri Polo), speak highly of Greg’s talents in the field.

Combining the emasculating humor at Greg’s expense with Jack’s emotionally vulnerable moments make Meet the Parents a solid take on a trope with a lengthy history. Meet the Parents doesn’t aspire to the greatness and significance of something like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The two films are light years apart. But it is commendable for a studio comedy in the early 2000s to not rest on the laurels of the subgenre by making De Niro a cantankerous bully at Stiller’s expense. Allowing De Niro to play against type and explore some range while also infusing the character with that intimidation factor makes the film feel more well-rounded.

It also allows room for the sentimentality at the end of the film to land a lot harder. By film’s end, we know Greg has been inducted back into the Byrnes family’s circle of trust. And while Greg did highly questionable things (such as spray-painting another cat’s tail to pass him off as Jinx, who had gone missing), his inclusion back into the family’s trust is contingent on Jack’s forgiveness and Jack’s willingness to see Greg is a good fit for his daughter. Establishing Jack as a wholesome family man and exploring that throughout the film’s run of zany setups (including a clandestine would-be CIA operation subplot) makes the resolution resonate all the more clearly.

Though a fair amount of its comedy is outdated by today’s standards, Meet the Parents stands out in the crowd of a somewhat tired subgenre of comedy. By refusing to make Jack an out-and-out hardass of an intimidating figure, and letting Greg have his own agency outside of the emasculating punchlines, Meet the Parents can still stand up against the modern ilk of big-star studio-comedy vehicles.