Something is off, way off, with Robert De Niro's acting. He's been working with a vengeance lately, averaging three pictures a year since 1988, and the strain is showing. So far his loyal followers have been content to lavish praise on the emperor's new clothes. Many critics watched him walk through Mad Dog and Glory as Bill Murray's stooge and applauded his zombie act as a dazzling change of pace. Others, myself included, were admittedly impressed by his flashes of showoff brilliance in Awakenings and Night and the City and overlooked the dead spots in between. But De Niro at his Seventies peak in The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter and the landmark Martin Scorsese trio of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull never used technique to fake the hard work of characterization. Now he does, and it's a dispiriting sight. An indisputably great actor is inching toward the black hole of self-parody.
De Niro's latest film, This Boy's Life, makes the problem glaringly obvious. The film is an overscaled adaptation of Tobias Wolff's subtly detailed and justly acclaimed 1989 memoirs about growing up in the Fifties. De Niro plays Dwight Hansen, a mechanic who is raising three kids alone in the small mountain town of Concrete, Washington. Dwight is determined to talk Caroline Wolff (Ellen Barkin) into marriage. Caroline, a divorcée, lives in Seattle with her teenage son, Tobias (Leonardo DiCaprio). The two have traveled in Mom's old Nash from Florida to Utah before landing in Washington to make a new life. The book opens, memorably, on the road as mother and son watch a truck that has lost its brakes zoom past them and over a cliff. The movie deletes that crucial incident.
For out of control, it has De Niro. The actor lets it rip from the start, leaving the character with nowhere to go. Dwight is supposed to ooze the kind of fawning courtliness that earns Caroline's attention and Toby's devastating mockery. The book holds back a few chapters before revealing Dwight's dark side. Not the movie. De Niro is a terror from the second he enters the Wolff house carrying flowers and sporting the maniacal grin Travis Bickle had in Taxi Driver just before embarking on a violent rampage.
De Niro's decision to make Dwight a loony from the get-go throws the delicate symmetry of the story out of whack. Caroline should see Dwight as a chance for a settled life --- her husband dumped her for a rich deb back East and sent their older son to Princeton. (Geoffrey Wolff, Tobias's brother, wrote their father's story in the stinging Duke of Deception.) But it's impossible to believe that Caroline, as played by the fiercely intelligent and sexy Barkin, wouldn't run for cover after one glance at De Niro's bug-eyed Dwight.
Instead she marries the bonehead and moves to Concrete. Dwight's kids have learned to dodge his anger, especially the youngest, Pearl (Eliza Dushku). Toby isn't so savvy. He's now the prime target of Dwight's "kill or cure" program. No more malicious mischief for Toby, and no more watching Superman on TV with his friends and bragging about the "six hot inches" they're going to stick to Lois Lane. Toby the JD with the ducktail becomes Toby the Boy Scout with the crew cut. Dwight harasses Toby with dumb chores, steals his money, insults his father and wears down his self-esteem. The verbal abuse keeps coming until Toby plays good doggy. The book describes how the two enemies develop a perverse bond, which the film cowardly avoids. Director Michael Caton-Jones (Doc Hollywood) slights the gray areas of the story by making Toby play martyr to Dwight's tyrant.
DiCaprio's fresh, sharply intuitive performance helps restore the balance. This eighteen-year-old is a genuine find. De Niro, though, keeps upping the ante on Dwight's dementia with the help of screenwriter Robert Getchell (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore). "Shut your goddamn pie hole," says Dwight to anyone who contradicts him. Getchell also shatters the book's first-person point of view to let us in on events Toby hasn't seen, like his mom's wedding night. Dwight will only mount her sideways or doggy style ("I don't like to see the face"). In Dwight's house, things are done Dwight's way. "I'm home, you lucky people," he says, evoking the same dread as Jack Nicholson's "Here's Johnny" in The Shining.
It's painful to watch Wolff's witty, touching and sometimes tragic evocation of childhood degenerate into a horror film. Dwight rarely hit Toby. His strategy, wrote Wolff, was to "keep the possibility alive." But the screen Dwight comes on swinging. Wolff describes a scene in which Dwight slaps him for throwing away a near-empty mustard jar. In the film, Dwight punches, kicks and pummels Toby like Jake La Motta in Raging Bull until Caroline clobbers him with a bat. The incident never happened. Neither did the gruesome moment when Dwight bites into Toby's cut and bandaged finger like De Niro's cannibalistic Max Cady in Cape Fear. When mother and son flee the house in disgust --- actually Caroline stayed behind for a few months, and Toby and Dwight reluctantly shook hands --- Dwight raises his fist at the sky like Johnny Boy on the rooftop in Mean Streets and delivers a Raging Bull soliloquy ("What about me? When is it my turn for some consideration?") that ends with him howling, "You'll remember me."
How could they not? This Boy's Life becomes This Dwight's Life on film and a bogus version of that life to boot. What's lost is the chance to make a movie that shows a more subtle form of child abuse, the kind that leaves emotional scars that last for life. By playing Dwight as a cartoon monster, De Niro defuses the character's power. In the movie, Toby and Caroline walk away from the dragon into a sunny future. It's a Hollywood ending. Wolff, now a creative-writing teacher at Syracuse University, knows the real extent of Dwight's disfiguring influence. "I hear his voice in my own when I speak to my children in anger," he writes. "They hear it, too, and look at me in surprise."
One scene indicates what This Boy's Life might have been. Dwight is teaching Toby how to fight. Wolff writes of the "peculiar patience, almost tenderness, that Dwight reserved for instruction in combat." The subject is dry gulching, a trick maneuver of acting friendly and then flooring your enemy with a punch to the windpipe or a kick to the groin.
What Dwight is really teaching goes beyond fists --- it's the art of deception. Toby's con-man father had provided a head start; now Dwight is applying the finishing touches. De Niro plays the scene with low cunning, charting the emotional shifts of the character from pride to loathing with a quiet intensity that is riveting. For a moment, the old De Niro fire flares. But the moment passes, replaced by his all too familiar tirades. Watching De Niro pitch a fit is like watching Sinatra get it up for one more go at "My Way." The job gets done, but you know his heart isn't in it.
Once, De Niro took chances, risking disaster and often finding it. In The Mission he tried a period piece as an eighteenth-century slave trader in the jungles of Brazil. But his New York accent wreaked havoc on his stilted dialogue ("So me you do not love?"). He underplayed a priest (True Confessions) and overplayed a devil (Angel Heart). But playing Joe Normal became his toughest hurdle. It's painful to watch him romancing Meryl Streep in Falling in Love; you half expect him to gun her down. De Niro flattens out when he tries to be simple (Stanley and Iris) or straight-arrow (Guilty By Suspicion). He needs the dangerous glint he gets when working with Scorsese. He came closest to projecting a fully rounded character as a bounty hunter trading hard-luck stories with Mob accountant Charles Grodin in Martin Brest's gently comic Midnight Run. It was his last truly surprising performance.
Midnight Run was released in 1988, the year De Niro and his business partner Jane Rosenthal founded Tribeca, an independent film and TV production company based in New York. Some say De Niro, who'll be fifty in August, has accelerated his work schedule to keep Tribeca financially afloat. That might help explain his turning up in the mainstream Backdraft as an arson investigator who waxes philosophical about fire ("The only way to truly kill it is to love it a little"). Backdraft may not be the worst acting of De Niro's career --- his insufferably broad comic turn with Sean Penn in We're No Angels is right up there --- but it's the first time he ever gave the impression that he was showing up exclusively for the paycheck.
Whatever the reasons for the rote quality of De Niro's recent work, he's showing no sign of slowing down to recharge his creative batteries. For Tribeca, he's starring and making his directing debut in A Bronx Tale. Then he's expected to play Michael Milken in Highly Confident, team with Whoopi Goldberg in Exchange Students and portray the creature in Francis Coppola's production of Frankenstein. The last is ideal for an actor who's become expert at portraying characters stitched together out of old remnants. Will we ever again see the De Niro whose joy in performing electrified audiences and inspired a generation of actors? You can wait around and hope. But don't look for him in This Boy's Life or Mad Dog and Glory. There's nobody home.