Bless you, Robert De Niro. Carrying the lofty weight of the label ‘Hollywood’s greatest actor’ must be a tiring load to live with. When you’re the two-time Oscar winner with legendary films like Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas on your resume, doing anything less than an outright masterpiece can’t help but seem disappointing. Then again, the past two decades of De Niro’s career has been a, shall we say, eclectic mix of projects, many of which didn’t really cut the mustard. I’m not sure we’ll see Dirty Grandpa mentioned in any lifetime achievement montages. Still, De Niro has evolved into a jobbing actor who moves from gig to gig with ease, even if the work isn’t great. Hey, dude’s got a divorce, a restaurant, and a whole dang film festival to pay for. They can’t all be The Irishman.
The War with Grandpa, the newest De Niro movie, is more forgettable fluff than outright offensive. It’s the kind of fluffy family movie you’d see on TV on a rainy Sunday afternoon when you don’t have enough energy to get off the couch and put on a DVD of something more exceptional. De Niro plays the eponymous grandpa, Ed, a widower who gets into so much trouble living alone that his daughter (Uma Thurman) insists that he move in with her family. Unfortunately for his grandson Peter (Oakes Fegley from Pete’s Dragon and The Goldfinch), the only room available for grandpa to stay in is his. Forced to live in the attic, Peter decides to go to war against his grandfather through a series of pranks that position him somewhere between a petulant brat and a potential serial killer. Of course, grandpa knows a few tricks of his own.
You know exactly what this movie is going to do by the time the opening credits are over. Yup, it’s another story about the importance of family and how a young man and the (grand)father figure in his life grow closer after initial animosity and some hilarious Home Alone-style hijinks. They’re all here: Swapping out shaving cream for Polyfilla; putting hot sauce in the coffee; systemic gaslighting on par with a gothic horror from the 1800s. You know, all the classics. The main problem is that Peter is defined entirely by his whining. Even his friends call him out on it. All he does is complain and perform ‘pranks’ that make me seriously concerned for his future. Sure, I get why a young boy would be mad at having his bedroom taken away from him, but any sympathy the viewer has with him ends there. This is no knock against Oakes Fegley, who is a talented young actor with a bright future ahead of him. It’s more that we’ve seen this plot and this character done so many times and with scripts that give the central kid more to do than metaphorically throw his toys out of the pram.
There are glimmers of humor and chuckle-worthy moments. The moment it’s revealed that De Niro’s best friends are being played by Cheech Marin and Christopher Walken, I must admit that I did cackle. Walken is in full Walken mode here, that wonderful and oft-imitated mix of utter bemusement and used car salesman charm. It’s not exactly The Deer Hunter reunion one could have hoped for, but it does make you want to see this trio in something much looser and weirder.
All in all, the adult actors are actually trying here. De Niro is charming and just grouchy enough, he has a sweet chemistry with Jane Seymour, and I could watch Walken on a trampoline for days. The surprise standout; however, is Uma Thurman. Saddled with a thankless beleaguered mother role, Thurman decides to play this part as demented as she can manage. Sally Decker seems constantly on the verge of a violent breakdown and it’s oddly fascinating to watch, like a cross between Kill Bill’s The Bride and Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom. It makes you wonder how she would do with a juicy camp role in the Ryan Murphy universe.
Ulimtately, The War with Grandpa is another middling family-comedy wherein every plot beat can be seen coming from ten miles away and a lot of talented actors get a moment to relax with some easy work. What else would one expect from the director of Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, Hop, and Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever? What’s more baffling is that this thing is getting a wide cinematic release in the middle of a pandemic. Who is the audience for this film at this moment in time? Is it just not a big enough deal of a movie to get a VOD premiere? This can’t have been expensive to make and nobody seems to have much in the way of critical or commercial hopes for it. (This was previously a Dimension Films/The Weinstein Company title before they went to hell, and it sat on the shelf for over two and a half years.) It’s almost as if the distributors forgot about it, not that I blame them. It’s not upsetting or heinous or The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. To quote Joe Pesci in The Irishman, it is what it is.
The War with Grandpa premieres in theaters on October 9.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
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