There are two kinds of self-parody — deliberate and unintentional — and Robert De Niro is now a master of both. With this weekend’s The Family, it’s the former, as the actor actively spoofs his renowned mob-film roles for a tale of a mafioso boss relocated (along with his wife and kids) to France under the witness-protection program, only to discover that the old life is difficult to escape. Tongue-in-cheek through and through, it’s a film that actively riffs on its lead’s famed persona as an organized-crime tough guy — a strategy that De Niro has been milking ever since 1999’s Analyze This proved that audiences would flock to see this most Method-y of modern Method actors make fun of himself onscreen. That segue into self-mockery, however, came with an unintended, and unfortunate, consequence: It ushered in an era of De Niro performances that, even in dramas, came across like pale, tossed-off approximations of his past work. For more than a decade, Robert De Niro has played little more than Robert De Niro.
Recent history shows us that this is often an inevitable turn of events. As they age, iconic actors frequently come to rely on routine schtick, their onscreen personas calcified by the parts that initially made them famous. Post–The Shining, Jack Nicholson’s favorite role became “Jack Nicholson,” the eyebrow-raising, slyly grinning dangerous tomcat charmer. The same was true of Marlon Brando, who not only intentionally satirized The Godfather’s Don Corleone in 1990’s The Freshman, but, in late-career throwaways like Don Juan DeMarco and The Score (opposite De Niro), also slummed his way through performances that primarily depended on the audience’s familiarity with, and fondness for, his lackadaisical, mush-mouthed confidence and weirdo charisma. In recent years, others have also fallen into this trap, using the tics and temperament from their most popular parts as crutches, so that every subsequent performance is merely a variation of that which came before. Think Samuel L. Jackson. Or Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or post–Scent of a Woman Al Pacino, all arm-waving, quiet-then-loud bluster.
In searching for the moment that changed De Niro, the most obvious place to begin is Analyze This. Released in 1999 just two months after the debut of HBO’s The Sopranos, with which it shared a conceit, Harold Ramis’s hit comedy featured De Niro as a gangster who, because of panic attacks brought about by occupational stress — you know, people want to kill him, because he’s a gangster! — starts therapy sessions with Billy Crystal’s psychiatrist. Wielding his trademark squinty-eyed, Italian-accented menace for laughs, De Niro’s performance was a pitch-perfect pinprick to his own storied career. With expert precision, it exploited audiences’ love of his Godfather: Part II and Goodfellas efforts, predicating its premise on the fact that everyone — including De Niro — was in on the same joke.
Whereas De Niro’s prior comedic triumph, 1988’s Midnight Run, played off his intimidating roughneck attitude without directly referencing preceding roles, Analyze This traded in calculated inside-baseball humor. And, like a Mad magazine piece authored by the subject himself, it fully fossilized De Niro’s idiosyncratic speech patterns, gestures, and expressions into caricature. What followed were comedies that operated in a similar fashion, either by basing their entire premise on De Niro’s reputation as a terrifying tough guy (the Meet the Parents franchise; the dreadful Eddie Murphy team-up Showtime), or by actively shouting out to his onscreen mafia ancestors (the animated Shark Tale). Only a year after Analyze This, De Niro was spoofing his most famous lines of dialogue from Taxi Driver in the semi-animated farce The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. The damage, clearly, was done.
While other great actors have also taken paycheck parts in kiddie projects (see: Orson Welles voicing a planet-eating robot planet in 1986’s animated Transformers: The Movie), this sort of blatant regurgitation of career-making moments for juvenile laughs seemed beneath De Niro — until, it became evident, the actor no longer cared to be anything more than a parodic version of himself. Even a cursory glance through the post-1999 De Niro oeuvre is bound to elicit depression, as one title after another (City by the Sea, Godsend, Machete, Killer Elite) calls attention to the fact that the actor’s work has, for some time now, been marked by a lazy reliance on former poses.
At his peak, in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas — all, notably, collaborations with Martin Scorsese, who best knew how to harness the actor’s more explosively exaggerated tendencies — De Niro had an edgy volatility that was often barely suppressed beneath a disquietingly calm façade. In his finest parts, he was a coiled snake always poised to pounce. And with 1991’s Cape Fear, that onscreen presence reached something of its apex, finally transforming from seething, conflicted masculine ferocity into full-blown psychotic malevolence. His Cape Fear villain, Max Cady, was the unbridled manifestation of his prior characters’ controlled madness.
In hindsight, that frighteningly great performance seems to have also left De Niro with nowhere to go. Although a few remarkable turns followed — 1993’s A Bronx Tale (his directorial debut), 1995’s Heat and Casino (the latter, his last Scorsese collaboration), 1997’s Jackie Brown — the actor’s career was never quite the same again. As early as 1993’s This Boy’s Life, in which he stars as a monstrous fifties father wreaking havoc on the lives of his wife and son (Ellen Barkin and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively), De Niro is a collection of studied mannerisms and barking-mad glares. He’s a one-note actor going through the raging-bull motions.
Yet in looking to pinpoint a turning point to this unintentional self-parody, it’s hard not to inevitably focus most squarely on 1996’s The Fan, a Tony Scott production that shamelessly repurposes Cape Fear for horror-movie nonsense. As a lunatic obsessed with his favorite baseball player (Wesley Snipes), De Niro simply ups the Max Cady craziness to cartoon levels. Convinced he can help Snipes’s struggling superstar, De Niro stalks his prey with escalating kookiness that soon transitions into supernatural villainy that’s just plain silly, replete with him stabbing another player (Benicio Del Toro) to death in a hotel sauna, and finally confronting the object of his athletic desire in a rain-soaked climax that’s more hysterical than The Simpsons’ parody of Cape Fear. It’s a deluge of self-parody.
That problem became exacerbated during the past ten years, reaching its nadir with Righteous Kill, a re-pairing of De Niro and Pacino in which the once-great thespians vie to see who can most vociferously rehash their defining shtick (De Niro’s unstable fury, Pacino’s smooth-talking screaminess). Even when inhabiting quieter, older everymen, as in 2009’s treacly Everybody’s Fine or last year’s Oscar nomination-courting Silver Linings Playbook, De Niro’s restraint comes across as disinterest. His every cantankerous grumble and fiery outburst is delivered with a lethargy that seems robotic and infused with boredom. Sleepy or self-referential — barring a miraculous return to form, perhaps via a much-needed reunion with his directorial muse, Martin Scorsese — we’re unlikely to see anything else from Robert De Niro for the remainder of his career.