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‘The War with Grandpa’ – What is it good for?

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Robert De Niro is one of our greatest living actors. The history of American film simply cannot be told without including a number of his films. He has seven Academy Award nominations for acting – five in Best Actor, two in Best Supporting Actor, with one win in each. He is a titan of cinema.

However, he is ALSO a working actor who has long shown willingness to undertake projects that won’t get him anywhere near the Oscar stage, making loads of films that are far more populist than prestigious.

His latest film is “The War with Grandpa” … and you can probably guess into which category this one falls.

The family-friendly comedy – directed by Tim Hill from a screenplay by Tom Astle and Matt Ember (adapted from Robert Kimmel Smith’s book of the same name) – is pretty standard fare, tame kid stuff that aims to be inoffensively entertaining. It’s the kind of film that young viewers will likely find delightful and that older audiences will find more or less tolerable.

That said, the film sports a shockingly strong cast; De Niro leads the way, but we also have Uma Thurman and Christopher Walken, among others. While the quality of the performers can’t fully make up for the generally generic quality of the film, it certainly doesn’t hurt – in lesser hands, this movie could have been just plain bad. Instead, we get a perfectly pleasant, albeit forgettable 90ish minutes.

Peter (Oakes Fegley, “The Goldfinch”) is a pretty typical kid. He likes video games and sneakers and is nervous about going into the sixth grade. But he’s got a big issue. See, his parents Sally (Thurman) and Arthur (Rob Riggle, TV’s “Hoops”) have decided that Sally’s dad – Peter’s grandfather – is going to move in with them following an unfortunate incident at the grocery store … and he’s going to get Peter’s room.

Ed (De Niro) isn’t really interested in moving in with his daughter. He’s a retired builder, a guy who has provided for himself and his family for years. He’s not thrilled with the notion of moving in with his daughter and her family, but he’s not left with much of a choice.

Peter doesn’t want to move to the attic, but he doesn’t see much of a choice. However, his friends encourage him to fight for what is his. And so, he decides to declare a war of sorts on his grandfather, launching into a series of pranks in an effort to get his room back. Ed, lonely and out of sorts, is initially bemused by the declaration, but eventually goes all-in.

What follows is a rapidly-escalating battle of wills, with both Peter and Ed proving surprisingly willing to go above and beyond in an effort to achieve victory over the other. Both have their support team of friends – Peter has Billy (Juliocesar Chavez, “The Babysitter: Killer Queen”), Steve (Isaac Kragten, “Breakthrough”) and Emma (T.J. McGibbon, TV’s “The Umbrella Academy”); Ed has young-at-heart Jerry (Christopher Walken, “The Jesus Rolls”), lothario Danny (Cheech Marin, TV’s “Elena of Avalor”) and new friend Diane (Jane Seymour, TV’s “The Kominsky Method”) – and both are ready to engage.

It isn’t long, though, before things start to get out of hand. And as their actions start to spiral out of control, they’re left to determine if family harmony is worth more than the room over which they are doing battle.

“The War with Grandpa” is … OK? It’s the sort of gentle, fitfully funny offering that would have been right at home on a kid-oriented cable network. The fact that it stars multiple Oscar winners and a number of other cinematic notables changes the calculus, to be sure, but only enough to bump this movie up to the level of “fine.” Not that there’s anything wrong with fine – frankly, the world could do with a few more movies that reached that level – but with a cast this loaded, it’s tough to avoid considering what might have been.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the film is the fundamental disconnect at its center. The reality is that the driving action of the movie simply doesn’t make any sense. The kid wants his room back. Great. How does tormenting his grandfather get that for him? It’s not like Ed is going anywhere – he lives there now. You can’t prank him out.

I know, I know – it isn’t about making sense. “The War with Grandpa” exists so tweens can watch their peers jump scare old people and make them fall down in such a way that looks painful but is ultimately harmless. And the truth is that there’s actually a fair amount of fun to be had here, with some good jokes and a couple of solid bits of physical comedy. When the movie really leans into the slapstick, it cooks. There’s just too much other stuff that gives us time to consider the underlying nonsense of it all.

The performances are probably the highlight. I have no idea how the filmmakers convinced these actors to a) be in the movie and b) give a crap, but for the most part, they did. De Niro is doing his usual old-man comedy shtick, but it’s a gentler brand that works pretty well here. Fegley is a charming kid who manages to handle his business opposite De Niro, which is pretty impressive. Thurman has a pretty thankless gig here, basically serving as the victim of Ed/Peter prank overflow. We get Nice Rob Riggle instead of Jerk Rob Riggle. Walken is bonkers and weird and kind of a delight, as are Marin and Seymour – they’re all having a blast. The other kid performers are solid as well.

“The War with Grandpa” won’t win De Niro another Oscar, but at the end of the day, that’s OK. This film is family-friendly formula, the cinematic equivalent of background noise. It’ll entertain its target audience for an hour-and-a-half, which is ultimately all these sorts of movies need to do. Just don’t think about it too much.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 12 October 2020 16:43

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