The dinner table; a place for families, friends, acquaintances, and strangers to meet and break bread, settle business deals, discuss the days behind, and the days ahead. For as longs as I can remember and surely many hundreds of years beyond that, the dinner table, in whatever shape it may have been, was and still is a place of connection.
As anyone can attest, meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time can be an odd, revealing, and sometimes embarrassing theatrical scene. We often over-hype, overreact, and overthink throughout the entire process, resulting in awkward adrenaline induced word vomit that is confusing and often irrational. In the hopes to quell the pressure, people in our society regularly have these first meetings at a dinner table, whether at a restaurant or within the confines of the parents’ house.
For Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), in Meet the Parents, he is not only challenged with a first meeting, but more interestingly, an extended weekend. Greg and his fiancé Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) make the decision to come home to meet her parents Jack (Robert Deniro) and Dina (Blythe Danner) and to ask Jack for Pam’s hand in marriage. Little does Greg know, Jack is an ex-CIA officer and does not allow courtship without the completion of a deep background investigation. This fun and hilarious film epitomizes the aforementioned intensity involved in meeting a family for the first time and luckily for us one of the film’s most iconic scenes involves a dinner table.
Scene: Greg and Pam right, Jack and Dina at end of table, Jack’s mother in an urn above the mantle. Jack is skeptical about anything Greg has to say and looks for any way to put the pressure on him. Greg is resilient and positive, but disheveled from the constant surveillance. Throughout the scene he constantly reaches for some bit of interesting conversation to silence the quiet, but swings and misses multiple times. This dinner scene plays a very important role within the film. At this point, Greg realizes that Jack has had reconnaissance on him to include cameras and Greg feels exposed.
I believe that the Director Jay Roach uses the dinner scene as a way to exacerbate the tensions between Jack and Greg and create uneasiness within the “circle.” Furthermore, the scene is used to transition the plot. Greg has gone from skeptical of Jack’s watchful eyes to fully knowing he is watching. Within the scene Greg takes small Jabs at Jack in response to his watchful ways, but is quickly thrown off balance by Jack’s quick whit and his own unfortunate actions and words. The scene progresses with Greg stating complete lies, which digs him into a hole that he will undoubtedly bury himself in. Many uncomfortable moments later and the scene ends.
Why use a dinner scene to pivot the plot? The answer is unassuming. The dinner table is the ultimate and versatile blank canvas for directors. Many famous films have dinner scenes that we will never forget and there is a reason for it. The dinner table can elicit emotions and memories that last a lifetime. The Meet the Parents dinner scene exemplifies the truly difficult and confusing first meeting of your significant other’s parents and like most embarrassing moments, it is something that everyone can look back on and laugh at.