LUCKILY, when the Cossacks swept through the steppes and displaced so many of the Jewish people to urban centers where they became intellectual and artistic leaders, a comedic formula was born! The smart kooky Jew from the city! Watch as he falls in love with a WASP! Marvel as he wanders nervously through the suburban landscape! Thrill as he uses his superior mental skills to outwit his white-bread nemesis!

Introduced by long-gone vaudevillians, perfected by Woody Allen and now carried on by our own generation's post-modern Jew/actor/director/writer Ben Stiller in the new film Meet the Parents, this ancient recipe still retains a bizarre potency. How else to explain the belly laughs and snorts forced forth by what essentially amounts to a premise as thin as a matzoh cracker? Stiller plays Greg, a male nurse living in an unnamed metropolis about to pop the question to Pam, his kindergarten-teacher girlfriend (played by Teri Polo). But he realizes in the nick of time that he must first ask her father for permission. Happily, a trip home to attend her sister's wedding presents the perfect opportunity. But wait! Complications invariably ensue!

His girlfriend reverts to an infantilized state within moments of embracing her overly protective, conservative father, played with vicious delicacy by Robert De Niro (who appears to have been hewn out of a particularly water-resistant old-growth tree). His luggage is, of course, lost during the flight, so he is forced to borrow the hip hop clothes of his girlfriend's pot-smoking little brother, and he is plagued by Mr. Jinxie, a bug-eyed Himalayan cat that has been fetishistically trained to utilize the toilet. Not the best circumstances in which to impress the folks.

Stiller, with his dark, almost-good looks, is a twitching, terrified everyman with whom we cannot help but identify as each new catastrophic development drives a wedge ever deeper twixt he and his beloved. It is testimony to the enduring power of the "outsider Jew" archetype that it is the "perfect" suburban family, with their corduroy slacks and Colonial home, who appear foreign and frightening here. So, go ahead and laugh. Yids and goys alike, we can all stand to get in touch with our inner Jew.