In 2016 Robert De Niro starred in Dirty Grandpa, as the titular disgusting (in lots of ways, but mostly sexually) senior giving uptight grandson Zac Efron lessons in letting it all hang out.
It was a funny film, though a 5.9 rating on the imdb (as I type) suggests that not everyone loved it. I didn’t love it either, but a few good gags and a suggestion that even the oldies like to part-ay is, in these frigid times, enough for me.
The War with Grandpa was made one year later and then sat on a shelf for three more, thanks to the Harvey Weinstein scandal (the Weinsteins were set to distribute it). It’s quite a diffrerent proposition, a family comedy with a plot contained pretty much in the title – Grandpa (De Niro) goes to live with his daughter (Uma Thurman) and family, causing her son Peter (Oakes Fegley) to be ejected from his room so Grandpa can have it. Peter is relocated to the attic, where rats, spiders and what have you lurk. He is not happy and declares war on Grandpa. Grandpa, forced to abandon listening to mawkish 1940s music (Hollywood still not being able to accept that it’s boomers who are now the oldies and 1960s music would be more appropriate), declares war back.
It’s a guerrilla war of escalating tit-for-tat – Peter switches foam sealant for grandpa’s shaving foam, grandpa responds by removing all the screws from Peter’s bed so it collapses when he bounces on to it. Grandpa doctors Peter’s homework. Peter loosens the heads on Grandpa’s golf clubs. A python is let loose at one point. But it’s an honourable war, with Peter and Grandpa swearing to keep this between themselves, so the rest of the family don’t find out (and also conveniently allowing the film to continue).
That’s about it, plotwise – they skirmish, practical jokes and physical comedy abound. Fleshing things out a touch are Peter’s schoolfriends, a nerdy bunch who are plagued by a school bully crying out for comeuppance. Grandpa also has friends, played by Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin and – once Grandpa’s recruited her from a local supermarket – Jane Seymour.
It is quite a starry cast and it doesn’t leave much space for Rob Riggle as Peter’s dad. Riggle mugs gamely to camera, making the best of being a virtual unknown in a sea of names, but actually he’s the key to the whole thing. Because what we’re really watching is an updated version of a 1960s Disney live-action comedy featuring smart kids, mild jeopardy, and a good-natured but ineffectual parent (Riggle aka the Dickless Disney Dad) whose job is to act as a catch-up sounding board.
Everything about it is also 1960s Disney Family Movie – its bright looks, the way the family interacts (Laura Marano as the slightly older daughter interested in boys, for example), a game of dodgeball between the seniors and juniors that doesn’t result in a shattered pelvis for any of the oldies, and the sort of humour that’s come out of a tin marked “hoary old standbys”. At one point grandpa grabs a ladder outdoors and climbs up it to fix some party lights up near the guttering. Is the ladder going to slowly swing backwards away from the house with grandpa gamely clinging on and making “Oh-oh-oh-oh-OOOH” noises? Of course it is. Is grandpa going to be seriously injured? Of course not.
Don’t look too carefully and you’ll not notice that the oldies are a bit creaky, or that Marin and Seymour don’t have that much to do, nor does the slightly better used Walken for that matter. But isn’t it great to see them?
Though never a gut-buster, it’s extremely good natured, and relentlessly so, at pretty much every level. Over the end credits is footage of the cast and crew all dancing on set and they do seem to be having a great time. One other plus – De Niro has finally realised that his downturned-mouth gurning isn’t the great comedy motherlode he clearly once thought it was. I think I spotted it only once. Instead De Niro tries acting. He’s pretty good at it.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020