I’m pretty sure that the last time I saw Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken onscreen together, the latter was tragically blowing his brains out in a smoky, crowded Saigon gambling den, so it is entirely possible that my expectations were a bit too high for their latest collaboration. At the same time, the two have been doing disposable paycheck gigs for so long — De Niro usually as a lead, Walken as a role player — that one should know not to expect anything special from The War With Grandpa. (Even if the last movie De Niro did with the word “Grandpa” in the title was some sort of unholy, misanthropic masterpiece.) Still, the amiably bland family comedy The War With Grandpa genuinely surprises with how un-special it is. It’s the kind of film that seems to vanish from the mind even as you’re watching it.
De Niro plays Ed, an aging widower whose increasing frailty and disconnection to the world prompts his daughter (Uma Thurman — that’s right, it’s a Mad Dog & Glory reunion, too) to convince him to move in with her family. Unfortunately, that requires Ed to take over the room of his 12-year-old grandson Peter (Oakes Fegley), who in turn has been relegated to the house’s dank, bat-filled attic. Determined to get his room back, Peter declares war on grandpa. Ed doesn’t really seem into the whole idea — he’s a veteran and, as he informs Peter, knows what real war is like — but he reluctantly assents, with the proviso that there be no collateral damage and the rest of the family is spared. (Spoiler alert: They are not.)
As the hostilities between Ed and Peter escalate from glued-shut marble jars and loosened furniture screws to drones and snakes and funerals — don’t get too excited, it’s all a lot less interesting than it sounds — one might expect some De Niro sparkle, a glimpse of the sleeping giant intensity that we know can sometimes lurk in those eyes even when he engages in fluff. But the film gives us none of the goofy menace De Niro brought to the paranoid father-in-law of the Meet the Parents franchise, or the gleeful raunch of the aforementioned Dirty Grandpa, or even the agreeable sentimentality of The Intern. A few effective physical gags aside — much of them involving Rob Riggle, playing Ed’s vaguely clueless son-in-law — there’s precious little actual humor to be found in this comedy.
The best thing I can say for The War With Grandpa is that it passes the time — which is perhaps a more valuable quality in this current moment than it might have been otherwise, and it’s certainly more than I can say for such previous De Niro monstrosities as New Year’s Eve. But so, too, does a nap. The movie has the quiet cadences of an after-school special, yet even that level of earnestness seems to be beyond its grasp. Maybe it would have worked better had it not kept reminding us of the way better picture it could have been. Playing Ed’s gadget and game-happy pal Jerry, Walken gets a few good lines here and there thanks to his characteristically unpredictable delivery, but his mere presence — much like De Niro’s, much like Thurman’s, much like Cheech Marin’s or Jane Seymour’s (yes, they’re here, too) — promises a more engaging movie. Similarly, the film presents the relatively recent loss of Ed’s wife (“Maybe we can miss her together,” his daughter says early on, while trying to get him to move in with her) as an early character detail that will presumably inform his actions throughout. But aside from a brief and vaguely non-sequitur payoff late in the film, this idea is mostly dropped. Ditto Ed’s whole war experience, which you’d think would somehow come into play in this “war” with his grandson. Even an encouraging subplot involving grandpa and his geriatric friends making quick work of the school bully who’s been tormenting Peter is resolved way too quickly to be satisfying or funny or ironic. The War With Grandpa feels less like a movie and more like a checklist — one that’s been filled out only halfway through.
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