Movies

Robert De Niro’s ‘The War With Grandpa’ Is No ‘Raging Bull,’ Obviously

I suspect that for anyone who was actually considering seeing it, the only review of The War With Grandpa you need is that my 7-year-old stepson sat through the entire thing, without begging to play on his tablet. Which is to say that it’s certainly a movie you can watch with your kids. But at what cost? Also, it’s only playing in theaters.

Yes, The War With Grandpa stars Robert De Niro, who has already been in enough bad paycheck movies that we don’t need to roast him anew for him being in this one. Suffice it to say, nothing in this is as embarrassing as getting stabbed in the boner with a syringe over a Viagra incident like he did in Meet The Fockers. Get that money, Bobby D.

Despite sounding like it sprung out of easy marketing campaigns like Neighbors (FRAT vs. FAMILY), Daddy’s Home (DAD vs. STEP DAD), or the self-explanatory Fist Fight, The War With Grandpa was actually adapted from a children’s book — Robert Kimmel Smith’s winner of 11 state reading awards of the same name, originally published in 1984. From what I can tell, the book seems to be a light pacifist allegory, using the story of a widowed grandfather whose middle school grandson declares “war” when grandpa takes over his room, in order to make the point that wars are silly and no one wins.

But I’m pretty sure that whichever studio exec optioned it saw only the chance to apply a tried-and-true marketing formula. Grandpa! Grandson! It’s war! Why find something good and figure out how to sell it when you can just find a new version of something you already know how to sell? In old boxing parlance, The War With Grandpa is selling wolf tickets.

The feeling of Neighbors deja vu is confirmed when, in a climactic moment in The War With Grandpa, someone gets pranked with an airbag under their seat cushion. You know, that same gag they used in the Neighbors trailer.

Presumably, this film’s target audience won’t care if it’s derivative. Robert De Niro plays Ed, a widower living in some leafy unnamed suburb where one day, he starts an elderly riot by refusing to use the electronic checkout machine that his local supermarket has installed after firing his favorite cashier. Kudos to writers Tom Astle and Matt Ember for inventing this scene (which presumably didn’t exist in a book written in 1984) which is both relatable and genial, if not quite side-splittingly funny.

That being said, it doesn’t especially make sense as the inciting incident for Ed’s daughter Sally, played by Uma Thurman, to demand that Ed move in with her family so they can look after him. Ed — who actually looks pretty spry, with a full head of hair and decent muscle tone — isn’t exactly unraveling from dementia here. In fact, it seems like he’s the only sane one, refusing to let the supermarket offer subpar service just so they can lay off another low-wage worker. Ed is the hero! This country needs more people like Ed!

That’s basically The War With Grandpa in a nutshell though — a series of madcap scenarios in search of a logical reason for them to exist. Soon we meet Ed’s grandson, Peter, played by a person called “Oakes Fegley,” who like virtually all child actors has at least 20% too much hair. Thus his parents and the filmmakers have now put me in the awkward position of trying not to ridicule a child. Look, I know it’s not the kids’ fault. That’s why it bugs me! How about no actors under 15 from now on? Can’t we just use older kids and age them down, or have Andy Serkis play them all in motion capture scenarios? Andy Serkis loves press tours.

Anyway, Ed takes over Peter’s room and Peter has to move into the attic, leading Peter to declare “war” on Ed, despite them mostly getting along otherwise. This, naturally, leads to a series of escalating Home Alone-esque prank bits, from marbles on the floor to plaster in the shaving cream to a “climactic” dodgeball game shot entirely with stunt doubles and wirework. “If the gag doesn’t work, you haven’t stylized it enough” seems to be The War With Grandpa‘s basic operating principle, where hyperbole always trumps wit. “Robert De Niro’s pants falling down is really funny” is the sub-motif.

A few vestigial elements from the book survive, in the form of vignettes in which Ed patiently explains to Peter why war is bad, in between bits borrowed from Neighbors and Home Alone. Unsurprisingly, the war allegory now just seems kind of odd and out of place. Maybe because it’s kind of weird to try to deliver a pacifist message after you’ve sold people solely on the spectacle of a fight.

Ed has a crew of friends that include a womanizer played by Cheech Marin and an adventure junkie played by Christopher Walken, and it’s nice to see those guys for a bit, even if the movie makes no attempt to bridge the gap between “types” and actual characters. On that note, Peter’s focus-grouped cute siblings include boy crazy older sis Mia (played by Laura Marano, who is 24 — see?? it works just fine!) and kid sis Jennifer, whose shtick is loving Christmas, played by Poppy Gagnon. I don’t want to harp on this child actor thing, but does anyone else think it’s super weird that a six-year-old (or whatever) has this dramatic ingenue headshot? Stop this madness.

As you might expect, Ed and Pete eventually go fishing and come to discover that they love each other and that war is bad. As you might not expect, the movie culminates with Ed ditching Pete to go hang out with his new girlfriend, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (aka Jane Seymour).

I’m serious, Ed jumps in a car with his new gal while Pete watches sadly from the upstairs window. And then the credits roll! It’s so weird and discordant that it feels almost like they were supposed to shoot another scene but got tired and just said screw it. And I can’t say they were wrong for it. The War With Grandpa kept a seven-year-old entertained for a full 90 minutes, so great job, I guess. Now, can we get that kid a haircut?

‘The War With Grandpa’ is available now in theaters nationwide. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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