At this point in his career, Robert De Niro has nothing left to prove. If he were to retire tomorrow, the 77-year-old movie star would still have two Oscars, too many classic American movies on his resumé to count, a greatest-of-his-generation éminence grise status and a legion of pretenders to the Method-immersive throne. Give him a good director (David O. Russell), or a great one (Martin Scorsese), and the gent can still bring his A game well into his autumn years. No one would — well, ok, we won’t — judge him for deciding, somewhere around the beginning of the century, to simply go about the business of being a working actor. You take a lot of roles, some of them will be decent, some of them will be willing self-parody and some will be bad. A few may channel the old magic here and there. You embrace the batting-average odds. You stop being picky. You start making sure your restaurants and hotels can stay open.
Filmed in the early summer of 2017, shuffled around from various release dates in 2018, sold by its distributor in an everything-must-go fire sale and now unleashed on a beggars-can’t-be-choosers public in late 2020, The War With Grandpa isn’t going to dent De Niro’s legacy. No one is expecting Raging Bull here, or even The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. (If you are anticipating that it’s a sequel to 2016’s Dirty Grandpa, however, you’ll be shit out of luck. Buyer beware.) A toothless, tiresome attempt at a family-friendly story of a grumpy old man engaged in guerilla warfare with his grandson, it’s only purpose seems to be giving the screen icon and his namebrand costars the chance to pay off a summer cottage or just get out of the house. Anyone involved in doing the kind of movie in which calling it “cute” is the highest payable compliment isn’t going to experience serious blowback. The only potential suffering will be happening on the viewer’s side of the equation.
Let’s get this over with, shall we? Ed (De Niro) used to be in construction. (I’ve heard you built houses.) Now this elderly widower is at the age when living on his own is becoming less of an option. His grown daughter, Sally (Uma Thurman) invites Pops to move in with the family, a perfect sitcom configuration which includes her bumbling husband (Rob Riggle in doofus dad mode), a boy-crazy teenage daughter (Laura Marano) and an adorable young moppet (Poppy Gagnon). Ed is assigned to the attic. The only problem? That’s the room of the middle kid, Peter (Oakes Fegley). He’s already having trouble adjusting to sixth grade, and now this?
So Peter declares war on grandpa. The geriatric retaliates. Doors fall down, furniture is reassembled, shaving cream is replaced with foam sealant, things blow up in people’s faces. A snake gets involved, and Air Jordans are turned into abstract expressionist artworks. De Niro is rendered au naturel below the belt more than once. We dearly wish that was a euphemism, but no. Eventually, Peter brings his middle-school buddies into the mix, and Ed enlists a loose crew of AARP-aged miscreants whose membership includes Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin and Jane Seymour. By the time dodgeballs start knocking out dentures and hitting nuts, you’ll suddenly finding yourself feeling a lot more affection for Little Fockers.
Director Tim Hill was one of three folks credited with developing SpongeBob SquarePants, then proceeded to give the world Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties and the first Alvin and the Chipmunks movie. This officially squanders the last of his banked good will. Even the movie’s big set piece, a Christmas-themed birthday party that devolves into the life-sized equivalent of the board game Mousetrap, feels like its moving at half speed. After everything is wrapped up and its back to smiles and rainbows again, and a coda suggests — what, future Home Alone-lite scrimmages? A sequel? — the film doesn’t so much end as stop.
Look, this isn’t going to cause the last existing print of The Deer Hunter to burst into flames. It won’t make the “House of Blue Leaves” sequence in Kill Bill magically disappear, permanently erase side two of Cheech & Chong’s debut album, or force you to throw out your six-season box set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. De Niro has made better mediocrities; he will almost assuredly make worse ones. The War With Grandpa is just one more title on his IMDb page, one more chance for these actors to keep working, one more instantly forgettable combination of slapstick and platitudes that characterizes the bulk of so much of what we reluctantly call “entertainment.” It’s 94 minutes that you won’t remember seconds after its over. You could always just throw down the white flag before shots are fired and save yourself the trouble.