The test of wills between Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) escalates to new heights. It has taken 10 years, two little Fockers with wife Pam (Teri Polo) and countless hurdles for Greg to finally get "in" with his tightly wound father-in-law, Jack. After the cash-strapped dad takes a job moonlighting for a drug company, however, Jack's suspicions about his favourite male nurse come roaring back. When Greg and Pam's entire clan – including Pam's ex-lovelorn ex, Kevin (Owen Wilson) – descends for the twins' birthday party, Greg must prove to the skeptical Jack that he's fully capable as the man of the house. But with all the misunderstandings, spying and covert missions, will Greg pass Jack's final test and become the family's next patriach... or will the circle of trust be broken for good?

Third instalment steers franchise back on course

Put simply, Meet the Parents: Little Fockers is nowhere near as good as 2000’s Meet the Parents, but neither is it as dismal as the repetitive 2004 sequel Meet the Fockers. Fittingly, for a film about ageing and adjusting your goals in life, it gently tweaks a format that’s become predictable and tidies up the comic edges; it’s getting the franchise’s affairs in order.

The central dynamic remains the same: the existential suspicion that WASP patriarch and former CIA agent Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) harbours for his Jewish nurse son-in-law Greg Focker (Ben Stiller). Jack usually makes Greg uncomfortable, and in trying to deal with this the younger man generally makes things worse – for variation, the elder figure becomes suspicious of Greg, misunderstanding a good-natured deed as an attack on his family’s sanctity.

But as a father of two and successful professionally, Greg is no longer quite the bumbling schmuck, and the film places him on more of an equal level with Jack, even allowing for a degree of cockiness. New director Paul Weitz, who previously made About a Boy with his brother Chris before going on to make In Good Company and American Dreamz, is more attuned to verbal rhythms than Jay Roach, the director of the previous two outings. Roach favoured exaggerate set-pieces, but Weitz does the bare minimum of sight gags – the family at dinner, a pet lizard lurking, Greg carving the turkey with a blade Jack presented to him: hello! – and instead gets the characters talking.

Weitz actually makes some use of Blythe Danner, as Jack’s knowing wife Dina, and he finds some simple comic back and forth in the exchanges between the two leads, which are then accentuated by the return of Owen Wilson’s impossibly perfect Kevin Rawley, who here is a variation on the actor’s patented brand of daft cosmic optimism. Wilson was previously used as a running gag, making Greg uncomfortable with his not-quite-hidden longing for Greg’s wife, Pam (Teri Polo), but Weitz actually catches the melancholy that circulates beneath the actor’s bonhomie.

The director also gets a better performance out of De Niro, who was dire as he ground through the gears of his performance in Meet the Fockers. There are a few moments of genuine lunacy here that make use of the character’s military martinet tendencies, particularly when he feels a heart attack coming on and issues orders to the 911 operator before defibrillating his own heart.

But these improvements, while welcome, are mere adjustments. The underlying mindset is close to stagnant – Harvey Keitel is cast as the builder renovating Greg and Pam’s new house, mainly so he can share a scene with De Niro, but when the moment comes they just yell at each other about cost overruns; the film’s satisfaction is in putting them in the same frame, instead of having a decent comic riff for them to work with.

Jessica Alba jumps around a lot as Andi Garcia, a pharmaceuticals rep who hires Greg as a conference speaker for an erectile dysfunction drug, thus allowing Jack to think the worst (when he rings the CIA requesting a background check the duty officer suggests he try Google). Likewise Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman have extended cameos as Greg’s funky parents, Roz and Bernie Focker. They’re mainly there to provide accumulated strength to the picture’s poster, although Roz, a sex therapist who hosts a successful cable show, does offer up one idea that applies to the franchise as well as the story.

Commenting on the passion that can seep out of a marriage, Roz suggests that couples spice things up by surprising each other with a little role playing. Dina tries it on Jack – it ends with a priapism set-piece and a traumatised child – but given the marginal improvements that Little Fockers enjoys over its predecessor, perhaps it should apply to the next version of this setting. Hopefully part four will surprise audience members by pretending to be a Strindberg adaptation, or an antic comedy. Chances are we’d play along.