October 10, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Tim Hill
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “The War With Grandpa” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A sixth-grade boy declares war on his grandfather, because the grandfather has moved into the family home and has been given the boy’s room, while the boy has been forced to live in the attic.
Culture Audience: “The War With Grandpa” will appeal primarily to people who like silly family comedies that have a lot of predictable slapstick gags.
Robert De Niro is an Oscar-winning actor who has influenced countless of other actors and worked with many of the best and most talented people in the movie business. His work with director Martin Scorsese has been highly lauded and always anticipated. But when it comes to the types of comedy films that De Niro makes, for whatever reason, he usually chooses bottom-of-the-barrel dreck. “The War With Grandpa” is one in a long list of De Niro comedy films that are downright demeaning for an actor of his talent.
De Niro hasn’t really made a good comedy film since 2000’s “Meet the Parents.” And the types of characters he’s been playing in comedies fit the same mind-numbing cliché: He’s a grumpy retiree (usually a widower) who annoys someone younger. And the movie almost always revolves around this flimsy “generation gap” premise that is poorly executed in the movie.
Such is the moldy concept presented in “The War With Grandpa,” directed by Tim Hill as if it’s a cheesy made-for-TV movie. Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember wrote “The War With Grandpa’s” awful screenplay, which is adapted from the Robert Kimmel Smith novel of the same name. The quality of this movie is so low that unknown actors could’ve played the roles and it wouldn’t have made a difference in the cheap and mostly unfunny gags and jokes in the movie.
The essential story is that De Niro plays a widower named Ed Marino, whose daughter Sally Decker (played by Uma Thurman) is worried about him being depressed and living alone. Ed is a two-hour drive away, so Sally insists that he move in with her and her family. Ed is given the bedroom of Sally’s only son Peter (played by Oakes Fegley), who is forced to live in the house’s run-down and leaky attic. Peter hates being displaced from the comfort of his bedroom, so he declares “war” on his grandfather.
Sally works at a car dealership. Her husband Arthur Decker (whom Ed likes to call Artie) works in a corporate desk job that Ed calls “soul-sucking.” Ed, who is a retired construction worker who built homes, doesn’t respect Arthur, who was an aspiring architect, but Arthur abandoned those dreams to work in a boring office job.
Sally and Arthur’s three children are Mia (played by Laura Marano), who’s about 16 years old; Peter, who’s about 11 years old; and Jennifer, or Jenny (played by Poppy Gagnon), who’s about 6 years old. Mia is a typical sarcastic teenager, while Jenny is a typical cute kid who’s the “innocent and sweet” child in the family. Peter is a typical middle child who often feels ignored and underappreciated.
Mia is at an age where she wants more independence, but Sally is paranoid about Mia’s dating activities and won’t allow Mia to be alone in the house with any teenage boys. Mia and a fellow student named Russell (played by Colin Ford) have some romantic sparks between them and they inevitably begin dating. Sally can’t even stand the thought of Mia kissing a boyfriend, which leads to an over-the-top scene later in the movie when Sally goes on a rampage and attacks Russell.
Peter begins sixth grade at around the same time that his grandfather Ed has moved into the family home and gets Peter’s bedroom. Peter complains about it to his three closest friends, who are all in the same class with him at school: anxious Steve (played by Isaac Kragten), wisecracking Billy (played by Juliocesar Chavez) and practical Emma (played by T.J. McGibbon).
In yet another cliché in movies like this, Peter is the target of a school bully (played by Drew Scheid), an older student who does things like dump chili in Peter’s backpack while Peter and his friends are seated at a table in the school cafeteria. The movie also has a running joke that Steve’s older teenage sister Lisa (played by Lydia Styslinger) frequently interrupts the friends’ conversation to mention something embarrassing about Steve, which he usually denies.
Among the problems that Peter encounters by living in the attic are a leaky roof that drips water onto one side of his bed; a mouse that chews an electrical cord, causing interruptions in the attic’s electricity; and a bat that randomly appears out of nowhere, which causes Peter to get so scared that he accidentally bumps his head on a ceiling beam. Instead of telling his parents so they could handle these problems (for starters, they could get a mousetrap), Peter blames his discomfort on his grandfather. Ed didn’t really want to live in the home in the first place, but he only agreed to live there to please his daughter Sally.
One night, Ed finds a note slipped underneath his door. The note is titled “Declaration of War,” with a demand that Ed has 24 hours to “give me back what’s mine.” The note is anonymously signed with the alias Secret Warrior, but of course Ed knows exactly who wrote this hostile missive. Ed is slightly amused and ignores the note.
After the 24 hours have passed and Ed hasn’t given up his place in Peter’s former bedroom, the war is on. After midnight, Peter sends another note, this time, by a remote-controlled noisy toy car, which wakes up Ed. The note reads, “People who steal each other’s rooms should not sleep well.”
The next morning, Ed has a heart-to-heart talk with Peter and tells him, “I’m not your enemy.” Peter remains unmoved, so Ed tells him that if they’re going to war with each other, they have to establish rules of engagement. Ed and Peter agree to two rules: (1) They won’t do anything that would involve other family members during the “war” and (2) They won’t tell anyone else in the family about the “war” while it’s still going on. Easier said than done.
What follows is a series of slapstick scenes that are mostly juvenile and unimaginative. Ed, wearing nothing but a towel in the bathroom, finds out that the shaving cream on his face is really foam sealant that was placed in the shaving can by you-know-who. Ed makes a ruckus that alarms Arthur, who goes in the bathroom to see what’s going on.
Arthur’s sudden presence startles Ed, who accidentally drops his towel in front of a mortified Arthur, who screams at the sight of his naked father-in-law. It won’t be the last time that Arthur sees Ed’s naked genitals and has the same high-pitched screaming reaction. (This is a family movie, so there’s no nudity.)
There are also numerous scenes showing Ed (in other words, De Niro’s obvious stunt double) falling down hard from tripping or losing his grip somewhere, because this movie wants people to think that it’s supposed to be funny that old people fall down in a way that could break bones or cause head injuries. Ed has a sentimental collection of marbles that he keeps in a jar. You can easily predict what happens and who’s responsible.
Ed’s pranks on Peter aren’t as harsh. At school, Peter is asked to read an essay out loud to his class about what he did for his summer vacation. As Peter starts to read the essay, he finds out that it’s been replaced with an essay that he didn’t write, which says things like, “I stopped showering until I smelled like a monkey’s butt” and “I sealed my own farts in a baggie.”
Ed decides to spy on Peter, so he buys surveillance equipment at a Best Buy type of store, where he has problems using the self-checkout machine. A store clerk named Diane (played by Jane Seymour) offers to help him use the machine. They make small talk, she asks why he’s purchasing a lot of spying equipment, and Ed tells Diane about the “war” that he’s having with his grandson Peter. Diane is sympathetic, because she says that she has a granddaughter who drives her crazy. It’s easy to see that Diane will eventually become Ed’s love interest in the movie.
Peter also does things like put hot pepper in coffee that’s intended for Ed, but Peter’s mother Sally ends up drinking the coffee instead while she’s in her car and stopped at a street intersection. She spits out the coffee, and the cup with the remaining coffee goes flying out the car window onto a cop on a motorcycle that’s right next to her car. Things escalate to a point where Peter pays Billy to borrow Billy’s pet snake, but there’s a mishap where the snake doesn’t go where it was intended. (Hint: The gag with the motorcycle cop is used more than once in the movie.)
There’s another slapstick scene where Ed is attending the funeral of a close friend, and his phone starts ringing loudly while he’s standing next to the open casket. Of course, it’s Peter who’s calling. When Ed gets the phone to turn it off, he accidentally drops the phone on top of the body and makes things worse when he tries to retrieve it. The phone slides further down the corpse in an area where Ed definitely doesn’t want to touch. Because this is a dumb movie, it’s never explained how Peter could know the exact moment to call to engineer this humiliating funeral mishap.
Ed has two close friends whom he eventually recruits to help him get revenge on Peter. Jerry (played by Christopher Walken, another Oscar winner who’s slumming it in this movie) is like a teenager in a senior citizen’s body, because he lives in a loft that’s decked out with games like pinball machines and foosball and the latest technology. Danny (played by Cheech Marin) sees himself as a ladies’ man and he flirts with younger women as much as he can.
When Ed and Peter decide to face off in a game of dodgeball with their respective friends, Ed enlists the help of store clerk Diane to join his team. Ed, Jerry, Danny and Diane then compete against Peter, Steve, Billy and Emma in a fairly long dodgeball scene that once again uses male genitals as fodder for a joke, when Steve gets brutally hit in his genitals by a dodgeball during the game. It’s a predictable gag that doesn’t work as well as the gag of Danny’s dentures flying out of his mouth during the game.
All of these gags and slapstick humor would work better if the movie’s dialogue and acting had some level of unique spark or creativity. But almost everything in “The War With Grandpa” is tiresome and formulaic. The experienced actors in the movie look like they only did this film for the money. Fegley does his best to be funny, but his Peter character (who turns into quite the annoying brat) is written in such a generic way (there are similar annoying brats in too many other movies) that “The War With Grandpa” will not be a breakout role for him.
The “war” culminates at a big Christmas-themed birthday party for youngest child Jennifer. It goes as badly as one would expect, with a lot of over-the-top and unrealistic antics and mishaps. “The War With Grandpa” isn’t the worst comedy ever, but it’s another unnecessary embarrassment that’s tainted De Niro’s illustrious career. The man who starred in the classic 1982 film “The King of Comedy” has now become the king of bad senior-citizen comedy.
101 Studios released “The War With Grandpa” in U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020.