You Shall Not (Free) Pass!
Date of Assessment: January 7, 2011
Positive Buzzwords: Legendary, Scorsese
Negative Buzzwords: Quantity over quality, Fockers
The Case: It's a frequently used term in the commend threads of this column; that is, the so-called "free pass" handed out to actors whose careers have undeniably lost their luster but not yet overridden their glory days. However, when an undisputed legend like Robert De Niro has spent the past decade (give or take) churning out a very steady supply of cinematic crap, well, isn't it about time to revoke that free pass? Although I must admit that the true meaning of the term still eludes me, and perhaps I'm reading the situation wrong by using De Niro as an example; but if many of you still care that much about this former legend, then I'm virtually begging you to please explain your definition of "free pass." Is a question of continuing to harbor a great deal of fondness for an actor that prevents one from willingly adjusting a positive opinion? Or does it actually point towards the likelihood that one will continue to buy tickets to an actor's crappy movies because of this inexplicably huge amount of undying respect? If it's the former, I suppose it's a matter of personal opinion. If it's the latter, then I do believe you're either delusional or disingenuous because -- in the case of Robert De Niro -- it is truly painful to witness a great deal of his recent work. Certainly, none of the people who sat down for Little Fockers went in with the expectation of watching the master at work, nor is that the case for most of his movies from the past decade. In addition, I just don't see the point in holding an eternal flame for De Niro when even he's certainly lost respect for his former self.
The De Niro situation has gotten so bad that when one anticipates a new Robert De Niro movie, the assumption is never that he'll be appearing in a quality product or even making a bad movie slightly more tolerable. This phenomenon truly puzzles me, and I wonder whether this is a matter of De Niro simply deciding that he no longer wishes to expend the effort required by taking take on those undoubtedly exhausting and mentally tasking roles of yesteryear. Certainly, De Niro's role selection patterns cannot be attributed to a case of too few compelling roles in existence, for there are enough hungry screenwriters out there to write good scripts, and people would definitely turn out if the legend had continued in his previous capacity. Hell, look at Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood, who have arguably taken on meatier roles with age. It just doesn't wash, and even if De Niro truly wanted to "take it easy," wouldn't he rather take the route of Jack Nicholson by accepting fewer roles? This certainly doesn't describe De Niro, who works all the damn time these days. Unfortunately, selectivity is not one of his priorities.
Don't get me entirely wrong here, for I love me some classic Robert De Niro. Quite simply, there are few actors that have ever reached the heights that his performances achieved within the following films: Mean Streets; The Godfather: Part II (his best performance, in my opinion, since he created a Vito Corleone that was both independent of and consistent with Marlon Brando's incarnation); Taxi Driver (Travis Bickle lives forever); The Last Tycoon; New York, New York; The Deer Hunter; Raging Bull; Brazil; The Untouchables; Midnight Run; and Jacknife. For quite awhile, only We're No Angels existed to mess up the streak of memorable classics with iconic De Niro characters. Subsequently, De Niro regained much of his stature by delivering fine performances in respectable movies: Goodfellas; Cape Fear; Casino; Heat (available on Netflix Instant Watch); Sleepers; Jackie Brown; Ronin; and Analyze This. Life was pretty good for Robert De Niro fans.
Then, things took a most decided turn for the worse with many disappointing, head-scratchingly bad De Niro movies: Frankenstein (as "The Creature"); The Fan; Great Expectations; The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle; Shark Tale; Meet the Parents (this one actually wasn't terrible); Analyze That; Meet the Fockers; Stardust (an overall wonderful film with an inexplicably awful turn from De Niro himself); Righteous Kill (which was actually worth the novelty effect of watching De Niro reunite with Al Pacino); What Just Happened?; Everybody's Fine; Machete; Stone; and Little Fockers. Throughout it all, De Niro asserted that he appears within all of these movies simply because he loves to work. He simply cannot stop making these movies, and his demonstrated inability to view the proverbial forest for the trees is further emphasized by his directorial work (The Good Shepherd immediately comes to mind) where De Niro exhibited absolutely no regard for pacing or anything else that might not bore his viewers to death. As a director, he's a lost cause; as an actor, he's no longer the enigma who can virtually guarantee a quality viewing experience for his audiences through fine performances and iconic characters.
Obviously, there's been a rather unprecedented general decline in the career of Robert De Niro, and this fact makes me want to go all Ordell Robbie: "What the fuck happened to you, man? Your ass used to be beautiful!"
Prognosis: For those who'd insist that this legendary actor simply needs to find new representation, well, the problem isn't quite that simple. You see, De Niro famously fired his agent a few years ago, and he's continued to make some less than impressive decisions. His upcoming slate includes several "in development" titles, which don't exactly point to selectivity. To make matters worse for De Niro lovers, one of these films is New Year's Eve (Garry Marshall's follow-up to Valentine's Day). However, a bit of good news is that De Niro's re-teaming with Scorsese for The Irishman (and the confirmed cast roster, interestingly, includes Joe Pesci and Al Pacino). Still, even if Scorsese manages to return De Niro to return to his former state of glory, this would be a temporary fix that will likely be negated with the rest of De Niro's late-breaking career decisions. Hell, De Niro insists upon maintaining a professional relationship with Ben Stiller, and that keeps his bank account full, but he'll never be The Robert De Niro ever again.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.