Although it indulges in too much slapstick, this family comedy actually explores the characters in this tinpot conflict with real thought and sensitivity.
- 🧑🦳 Although it's not an all-time performance, Robert De Niro lends Grandpa real tenderness and intelligence.
- 🧑🦳 Director Tim Hill finds a skillful way to have fun with the premise while simultaneously addressing more relatable issues.
- 🧑🦳 A gifted cast is often asked to do much with material that lacks complexity and doesn't quite deserve their talents.
- 🧑🦳 The goofier stuff - including two instances of De Niro's bare behind - undercuts the more meaningful messages in the story.
Tim Hill’s The War with Grandpa was originally scheduled for release in February 2018, and I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise to suggest that there’s nothing in it bad enough to justify that lengthy delay. It was a casualty of the dissolution of The Weinstein Company that, if nothing else, could easily have come and gone without notice in an ordinary year to no ill effect upon the reputations of those involved.
But Hill’s film feels oddly timely at a moment when more family members are trapped inside with one another than ever, and have to figure out a way to get along without, well, going to war. And moreover, it has a low-key intelligence and tenderness that makes it more than just passable entertainment for families refusing to pay an extra fee to watch . The War with Grandpa embodies and deftly earns the description “pleasantly diverting,” a featherweight comedy with a cast of heavy hitters who make the best of material they easily outclass, even if it’s not quite beneath their dignity.
Robert De Niro plays Ed, a septuagenarian with a bad knee who moves in with his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) and son-in-law Arthur (Rob Riggle) after a run-in with the manager (Faizon Love) of his local grocery store. Still mourning the loss of his wife, he struggles to find hobbies to occupy his time, and turns down regular invitations from old pal Jerry (Christopher Walken) to catch up. But when his grandson Peter (Oakes Fegley) officially declares war to reclaim ownership of the bedroom Ed now occupies, a quiet contest of pranks begins between them, with the condition that it remains a secret from the rest of the family - and no one else fall victim.
Egged on by his classmates, mostly nerdy kids who are bullied at school, Peter dives head first into the war games with gambits to outsmart and embarrass his technology-deficient grandfather. But even if he begins to tire of the surprises and showdowns, Ed’s patience and experience proves a good match for Peter’s impish creativity, and they soon discover they’re more equally matched than they should. Before long, the two become mistrustful of each other even when they call a truce for the good of the family - like at Peter’s little sister Jennifer’s (Poppy Gagnon) birthday party - leading to some unfortunate accidents that quickly escalate out of control.
De Niro’s been dining out on “paternal disappointment” for so long now that it’s actually refreshing for him to play Ed as thoughtful, sensitive, reasonable, and only slightly out of touch; after two decades of movies where he played parodic versions of the characters that made him such an imposing and unforgettable presence, this character actually feels like he’s giving a real performance, even if I wouldn’t call it a challenging one for him. Outside of the obligatory physical comedy, De Niro’s consternation at self-checkout registers and other technological advancements that eclipsed his generation is a frequent source of amusement. But in scenes opposite Fegley and Thurman, his insight and authority feels more charmingly leavened with a degree of humility; with his grandson, he tries peace talks before resorting to war, and with his daughter, he offers his opinion only to spare her from making the same mistakes that he did.
Moreover, he and his pals hover somewhere between Grumpy Old Men and the hip seniors Grandpa Simpson wrote letters to advertisers about, acknowledging their age while fighting, however feebly, for their relevance. Walken is such a wild card that watching him on a Onewheel doesn’t seem all that surprising, and there’s a devilish glee in watching him acquire all of these adolescent toys even if he doesn’t know properly how to use them. These are old men overwhelmed by yoga pants and trampoline studios, but willing to try to fit in anyway - and it works surprisingly often.
Calling it “a comedy for the whole family” feels more right than you’d expect, and in spite of his inclination to rely on slapstick that disrupts the emotional tone of a scene or sequence, Hill threads a pretty small needle in exploring everybody everybody’s point of view - Ed’s sense of loss and his desire to maintain his independence, Sally’s instincts to be impatient and overprotective, Arthur’s ambitions looking for air underneath a corporate paycheck, Peter’s autonomy and identity outside of an academic life at the bottom of the social totem pole. Some of these play out more thoughtfully than others, and some are basically dropped altogether once the larger machinery of Ed and Peter’s war games take over. But it is a sort of rare family-friendly movie that really wants the audience to see every character’s perspective, to understand it, and to have a little fun in the meantime.
Ultimately, I guess the best way to say it is this movie is just plain likeable. The “war” isn’t really a battle of wills but a way for a grandfather to engage with his grandson, and distract himself from his grief. In the midst of their battles, the two take outings together and share what would otherwise be some really special moments. And when their little game of Risk is exposed, Ed takes full responsibility and expresses understanding, and gratitude, to his family for their support. Certainly that sort of sentimentality can be found in other movies, and that sense of normalcy - the ordinariness of most of what happens - enables viewers to not simply look at this as a comic fantasy or gauntlet of crass humor. And watching Robert De Niro as a nice person who learns from his mistakes, changes and attempts to make amends feels like the kind of life lesson that people might actually need right now. In which case, The War with Grandpa may be no masterpiece, but it won me over.
The War with Grandpa will hit drive-ins on October 9th.
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