How does Robert DeNiro go from delivering one of the best performances of his career in last year's The Irishman to staring in a dopey slapstick comedy like The War with Grandpa this year? The film feels like any of those movies John Hughes wrote after the phenomenal success of Home Alone changed him. You know, Dutch, Dennis the Menace, Baby's Day Out – stories that relied on endless “comical” scenes of people being injured or humiliated before cramming in some kind of heartwarming message at the end. Based on a book by Robert Kimmel Smith, it's the best DeNiro movie with the word “grandpa” in the title, although that's only because Dirty Grandpa is a thing that exists.
The veteran actor plays Ed, a widower brought to live with daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) and her husband Arthur (Rob Riggle) after getting into a scrape with the law. That proves to be bad news for their son Peter (Oakes Fegley). Because his two sisters share a bedroom, he's forced to surrender his to Ed and move up into the unfinished attic, which has mice and bugs. Angry about this development, Peter decides to declare war on Ed, in the form of annoying pranks. Ed takes the bait. Soon, the two are doing everything they can to make the other miserable.
That could be an interesting premise. Ed seems to use the opportunity to teach his grandson some basic truths about war. They both agree to a few rules of engagement, and there's a warning about how war “ends up hurting a lot of people.” I can envision a decent family film based around that theme (and, in fact, Snowtime is one). Unfortunately, this picture is more concerned with predictable shenanigans. When a good two or three minutes are spent explaining why Ed has a jar full of marbles, you just know they're going to end up on the floor so he can slip on them. And when a supporting character is shown holding a snake for no apparent reason, there's little doubt it will eventually be placed into someone's bed.
At other points, The War with Grandpa just goes the lazy route, assuming that showing senior citizens doing stuff they're too old for is automatically funny. For example, Ed and his friends Jerry (Christopher Walken), Danny (Cheech Marin), and Diane (Jane Seymour) agree to play dodgeball against Peter and his pals, in one of those trampoline complexes, no less. Yes, old people floundering around on trampolines. That's the joke.
The movie's big finale involves a Christmas-themed birthday party. Actually, it's a “movie birthday party” – the kind so elegant it could only be achieved by a seasoned Hollywood production designer with tens of thousands of dollars at their disposal. No normal family could celebrate with such lavishness. A Rube Goldberg-esque series of disasters occurs, and that includes someone inevitably falling into the cake.
The sad part is that The War with Grandpa has an amazing cast. DeNiro, to his credit, never treats the material as the junk it is. He admirably commits to the silliness. Seeing Thurman shoved into a generic “mom role” is borderline depressing; she invests Sally with real pep, though. And Walken even manages to earn the few chuckles to be found in the movie, courtesy of his trademark offbeat delivery of dialogue. What about this screenplay could possibly have attracted such extraordinary actors?
Hopefully someday they'll reunite in a project more worthy of their talents.
out of four
The War with Grandpa is rated PG for rude humor, language, and some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.