Meet the Parents was an unobjectionable, sleepy-eyed bit of sitcom hijinks starring a vacant Ben Stiller and a playful Robert De Niro, and somehow, it made a huge amount of money in the fall of 2000. A sequel came with a slowness uncustomary for studio executives; four years clicked by before Meet the Fockers was released, and made the original look like Preston Sturges in comparison: other than Dustin Hoffman being unduly ecstatic that he gets to make potty jokes against De Niro - no longer quite so playful, maybe a bit on the self-loathing side - there's pretty much nothing about the sequel worth the extra $100 million it added to its predecessor's take.

Despite wrapping up, comfortingly, with "The End" in big thick letters, there was no particular reason why a third movie wouldn't be coming down the pike, though how it managed to take six years (to the day!) for the conclusion to this trilogy is beyond me. But yes, here we are, with Little Fockers. Presumably Meet the Kids was rejected as being insufficiently crass. And yet again, the new film manages to make its forebears seem that much shinier in contrast, for even as much as Meet the Fockers sucked in almost every regard, it did not, verily, suck do desperately as its bastardly spawn.

In keeping with franchise tradition, the plot consists of Gaylord "Greg" Focker (Stiller) being nervous and angry around his imposing ex-CIA father-in-law Jack Byrnes (De Niro), who is convinced thanks to partially circumstantial evidence that Greg is an utter fuck-up who deserves nothing resembling respect or consideration as a human being, and who certainly doesn't deserve the love of Jack's precious daughter, Pam (Teri Polo). Or, to make it even shorter, a nebbish is being psychologically terrorised by a sociopath. What, exactly, happens in between films to make Jack forget about the warm bonding moments he and Greg enjoyed at the end of the last film is not entirely clear, but without that we wouldn't have these films, and how much worse off would the world be in that case?

Picking up somewhere around five and a half years after the last film, Little Fockers finds Greg and Pam raising twins in Chicago, with their parents coming in to celebrate the kids' fifth birthday - except that Greg's dad Bernie (Hoffman) held out for money before he'd come back, which meant that all of his scenes are hastily tacked-on bits that do virtually nothing to affect the plot, and gives Greg's mom Roz (Barbra Streisand) absolutely nobody to play off of. As Greg is currently working with a pretty drug rep (Jessica Alba) hawking a erection pill, Jack manages to willfully misunderstand things to the point where he's certain that his son-in-law is an utter fuck-up who deserves nothing &c.

It seemed at the time that one of the worst things about Meet the Fockers was that the whole thing felt like a microwaved do-over of all the gags from the first movie; but now we know better. How lovely it would be if Little Fockers were just a tired re-tread! Instead, we now get to see the ghoulish spectacle of writers John Hamburg (a series vet) and Larry Stuckey and new director Paul Weitz (replacing Jay Roach and performing the impossible feat of making me pine for the supple comic hand of the director of Austin Powers in Goldmember) trying to freshen up the formula with all sorts of shiny new plot angles largely unimagined in the first two, which for all their failings at comedy at least hewed to a very clear dramatic spine: Jack is a psycho and Greg fears him. The focus in this third film curiously drifts away from that central conflict - it cannot possibly be that executive producer De Niro wanted to limit his on-screen humiliation - and ramps up the "pretty drug rep" subplot, but since we and Greg both know there is exactly a 0% chance of him cheating on his wife, the whole thing feels like an amateurish card trick, fumbling and trying to keep us distracted while the film sneaks north of the 90 minute line. Same for the much expanded role given to Owen Wilson as Pam's ex-lover; as one of the few genuinely good elements in both of the preceding movies, it must have made sense to expand his character and add some ginned-up drama from that, but it turns out that a little dab of Wilson is more effect than great buckets of him, particularly when the character has turned from a genial rich idiot to a monstrously broad parody of the rich Zen lifestyle.

With the gags cranked up on the humiliation-o-meter (including a projectile-vomiting scene that ends up even more disturbing than the one in The Exorcist, precisely because it is not meant to be disturbing), and otherwise stripped of wit, the film offers little in the way of humor to anyone other than sadists. There's a sequence in which Greg and De Niro are mistaken for a gay couple, and do that sitcommy "oh but wait no haha" flailing thing movie people do when they're accused of being gay, but it's played to maximise the embarrassment to the characters and to their interviewer, a school executive played by Laura Dern, whose eyes look resemble those of a terrified animal in a lab, begging to be killed instantly if she's not going to be set free. It's not funny, it's savage: there are no "gags" to it other than "hah, look at them, they're making it worse!" as if the "Not that there's anything wrong with that" episode of Seinfeld had been reconceived by August Strindberg.

Into this mess are thrust a hefty cast of actors, and every one of them looks sad and old: Stiller gives the same performance he gave in the other movies, an angry blank slate, but everyone else is plainly not happy to be there: Blythe Danner, as Pam's mom, has apparently aged 20 years since 2004, while the undisguised misery De Niro wears at every moment is heartbreaking, the Pagliacci-like mask of a man who 10 years ago made a couple comedies as a way of poking fun at his lacerating persona and has since been turned into a performing bear, too much of a professional to complain about it. Hoffman's disdain for the material is palpable; after being the best thing about Meet the Fockers, he's become just another cog in the franchise's machinery of famous people doing nothing. There's a very real sourness that radiates out of the movie from everyone but Wilson, doing his level best to remain wryly comic even as he turns into a clown; Little Fockers, one suspects, was not a friendly set. And even if there'd been anything redeemable about the script, that sourness would still make the film a pretty unpleasant experience, spending the holidays by locking your family in the basement.

Oh, and a note to the filmmakers: Chicago geography really doesn't work that way. Seriously, you've made Eagle Eye look like a documentary.