It’s hard to watch Robert De Niro get older. De Niro forged his respected reputation in the ‘70s and ‘80s by portraying violent, angry and conflicted characters such as those in “Taxi Driver,” “The Godfather: Part II” and “Raging Bull.” Yet, it seems De Niro’s aggressive leading personas have aged into grumpy old men. In recent years, the eight-time Academy Award nominee has embraced his seniority, starring in flippant flicks such as “The Intern” and “Dirty Grandpa” that milk his graying maturation for all it’s worth. De Niro’s newest movie “The War with Grandpa,” directed by Tim Hill, joins this company; however, its seat at the table is basically a highchair because the film’s monotonous immaturity stunts its ability to relay a lighthearted or even funny story.
“The War with Grandpa” centers on Peter (Oakes Fegley), an average and unassuming sixth grader, and Grandpa Ed (De Niro), a retired widower coping with the loss of his wife and his life’s aimless trajectory. If these two characters sound like they belong in different movies, that’s because they do. In the film, Grandpa Ed begrudgingly agrees to live with his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) and her family. Despite having two floors, a basement and an attic, the house apparently has only three bedrooms and no guestrooms, so Ed’s move in essentially evicts Peter from his beloved bedroom and forces the young boy to sleep in the rat-ridden attic. To protest this siege, Peter wages a prank war against his grandfather; the victor claims the bedroom. Their turf war abides by two rules: No one else in the house can know about the battle and no one else can get hurt.
Luckily, Peter and Ed strategize with the help of their own cohorts: Peter’s friends from school and Ed’s elderly buddies, Jerry (Christopher Walken) and Danny (Cheech Marin). The few funny moments depict Ed’s use of contemporary technology alongside his graying counterparts. Yet, despite this nod to the 21st century, “The War with Grandpa” is still the kind of movie that cracks jokes about old men leering at female joggers in yoga pants.
Behind the pranks, the film introduces Peter’s sisters, Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon) and Mia (Laura Marano), and his father Arthur, played by an endearing Rob Riggle. The characters conform to familiar fixtures in the quintessential American family, from Riggle’s dopey dad and Thurman’s overworked, thankless mother to Marano’s Type A teenager who just wants to hang out with her secret boyfriend. Despite the star-studded cast, newcomer Gagnon elicits the most joy in her scenes, glowing as Peter’s imaginative and adorable little sister.
“The War with Grandpa” reproduces the slapstick comedy reminiscent of “Home Alone.” But instead of targeting burglars, the tricks and traps target family members. While the film laughs at these silly moments, it feels uncomfortable to watch tomfoolery as it spills into elder abuse.
“The War with Grandpa” struggles to pinpoint its brand of humor, so the script catapults empty jokes that rarely land. On one hand, the film wants to be a gut-busting, “Tom and Jerry”-esque comedy for the family; the film also wrestles with an impulse to entertain adults through raunchy humor. There are too many jokes about De Niro’s penis, and all of them deserve Viagra or castration. “The War with Grandpa” cannot decide if it wants to attract children or adults, and it consequently captivates neither.
De Niro, Thurman, Walken and Marin are all Hollywood veterans, and it’s disappointing to see a vault of talent concentrated in a listless, washed-out comedy. The film reconciles problematic power dynamics by leveling Ed and Peter as equally intense pranksters; while pranks sustain the film’s first half, even “The War with Grandpa” grows tired of its own plot and the film runs out of steam. Arguably, the biggest culprit in the movie is that its central conflict has virtually no stakes as the titular “war” will obviously not destroy Peter and Ed’s familial relationship. While Fegley and De Niro offer solid leading performances, “The War with Grandpa” yields a Pyrrhic victory for its audience, as the film’s aimless execution sacrifices any hope for entertainment.