Review: ‘The Fabelmans,’ starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle and Judd Hirsch

November 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters and Sophia Kopera in “The Fabelmans” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures)

“The Fabelmans”

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1952 to 1965, in New Jersey, Arizona, and California, the dramatic film “The Fabelmans” (inspired by director Steven Spielberg’s own youth) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Sammy Fabelman’s parents have contrasting opinions about his childhood dream to become a movie director, and his home life becomes turbulent when he finds out an emotionally painful secret. 

Culture Audience: “The Fabelmans” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Spielberg and anyone interested in coming-of-age stories about famous filmmakers.

Gabriel LaBelle in “The Fabelmans” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures)

Steven Spielberg tells a very personal story of his youth in “The Fabelmans,” a drama that’s a partial biopic and a therapeutic life analysis. The movie’s overly long run time drags it down, but Michelle Williams gives a transcendent performance as the mother of the fictional version of Spielberg. “The Fabelmans” (which clocks in at 151 minutes) is yet another story about a young person who ends up going to Hollywood to pursue a dream. But in this case, the young person turned out to be the Oscar-winning Spielberg, who is frequently lauded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Spielberg directed “The Fabelmans” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Tony Kushner. Spielberg and Kushner previously collaborated on the 2021 remake of “West Side Story,” 2012’s “Lincoln” and 2005’s “Munich.” Spielberg has made a wide variety of films, but many of his movies—especially the ones having to do with outer-space creatures, such as 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and 2005’s “War of the Worlds” remake—have a few themes in common, such as people dealing with fractured families and/or families in conflict because one person in the family is determined to pursue a particular goal against tremendous odds. In “The Fabelmans,” there are no outer-space creatures, but protagonist Sammy Fabelman (a fictional character based on the real-life Spielberg) often feels like he’s a proverbial alien in his own family.

“The Fabelmans” begins in New Jersey, on January 10, 1952. Sammy is 5 years old (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), and his parents have taken him to the movies to see director Cecil B. DeMille’s circus drama “The Greatest Show on Earth,” starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame and James Stewart. Before they go into the move theater, Sammy’s mother Mitzi Fabelman (played by Williams) and Sammy’s father Burt Fabelman (played by Paul Dano) assure a fearful Sammy that the people who will look like giants on the big screen are just images from the movie. Sammy doesn’t know it yet, but seeing this movie will change his life.

This moviegoing scene in “The Fabelmans” also establishes from the beginning how Mitzi and Burt have two different parenting styles and contrasting outlooks on life. Burt, who is a computer engineer, tries to explain to Sammy the technical aspects of how a movie projector beams images on the screen and how a human brain processes those images. Mitzi, who is an on-again/off-again professional pianist for radio, explains movies to Sammy this way: “They’re like dreams.” In other words, Burt views life like a scientist, while Mitzi views life like an artist.

It’s later mentioned in the movie that young Sammy has anxiety and is prone to panic attacks. But since he’s a child in the 1950s, when people usually didn’t seek psychiatric care for this medical condition, Sammy doesn’t get therapy in his childhood for his anxiety. The person in his family who is most likely to calm him down is his mother Mitzi, who has mental health struggles of her own. She is the person in the family who is most likely to understand Sammy.

Sitting between his parents while watching “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Sammy is in awe and slightly afraid of what he’s seeing on the big screen. He is particularly impacted by the movie’s train-wreck scene. In this scene, a criminal who has just robbed a circus train, which is stopped on the tracks, drives his car onto the tracks to frantically stop another circus train traveling right behind the first train. His plan doesn’t work, and the second train plows into his car and the first train, causing death and some of the wild circus animals to escape.

After Sammy gets home, his parents notice that he’s become obsessed with trains. As a Hanukkah gift, Sammy’s father gives him a train set. The other members of the Fabelman household are Sammy’s younger sisters Reggie Fabelman (played by Birdie Borria) and Natalie Fabelman (played by Alina Brace).

It isn’t long before Sammy is recreating the train wreck that he saw in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Burt gets angry because he thinks Sammy isn’t respecting the toy train and is trying to ruin it, so he temporarily takes the train set away from Sammy as punishment. He orders Sammy not to simulate a train wreck when he plays with the toy train.

“I need to see them crash,” Sammy tells his parents to explain why he likes making the train crash into a toy car. Mitzi understands why Sammy has a fascination with creating a train wreck and explains it to Burt that it’s because Sammy wants control over the train. Burt doesn’t care to understand and just thinks Sammy is being a spoiled brat.

One night, after Sammy has gotten his toy train back, Mitzi takes him into the room where the train set is. She tells Sammy that he can crash the train one more time, but they will secretly use Burt’s film camera to film everything, so Sammy can watch the train wreck over and over without actually crashing the train. Mitzi tells Sammy that this film will be their little secret.

Of course, this film is the start of Sammy’s lifelong passion to become a filmmaker. By the following year, in 1953, the Fabelmans have a new addition to the family: a baby named Lisa. Burt gets a job working as a manager at General Electric (GE) in Phoenix, Arizona. Mitzi is supportive of the move, as long as Burt can get his best friend/co-worker Bennie Loewy (played by Seth Rogen) a job at GE too. It’s mentioned several times in the movie that Burt is an exceptional engineer and a computer visionary, while Bennie is an average employee who owes much of his career to getting help from Burt.

The Fabelman kids often call Burt’s best friend Uncle Bennie, even though Bennie isn’t biologically related to them. During a Fabelman family dinner, observant viewers will notice other dynamics in Bennie’s relationship to the Fabelmans. Bennie is a friendly jokester who likes to play harmless pranks and make people laugh, especially Mitzi.

Burt’s outspoken, widowed mother Hadassah Fabelman (played by Jeannie Berlin), who is a frequent visitor in the household, isn’t too fond of Bennie. Hadassah notices how Bennie and Mitzi have a playful banter with each other. Mitzi’s widowed mother Tina Schildkraut (played by Robin Bartlett), who is much more laid-back than Hadassah, doesn’t talk much and only has a few scenes in the movie.

Burt is mild-mannered, nerdy and slow to pick up on body language and social cues to figure out how people are really feeling. He’s a classic introvert who is more likely to consider facts when making a decision. Mitzi is impulsive, moody and very attuned to people’s unsaid thoughts. Mitzi is a classic extrovert, who is more likely to consider feelings when making a decision. Burt prefers to avoid confrontations. Mitzi isn’t afraid of confrontations and will often cause them.

It’s also implied that Mitzi has an undiagnosed mental illness, which is presented in “The Fabelmans” as looking a lot like bipolar disorder. In a scene that takes place in 1953, before the family moves from New Jersey to Arizona, a tornado strikes the area where the Fabelmans live. Instead of wanting to stay safe in their house or a secure shelter, like most people would, Mitzi spontaneously decides to take Sammy, Natalie and Reggie with her in the family car to drive toward the tornado so that they can get a closer look at it. (Mitzi at least has the sense to leave baby Lisa behind with Burt.)

Mitzi makes this decision so quickly, Burt doesn’t have time to stop her, and his protests are ignored. The kids are too young to understand that Mitzi could be putting them in danger, because she acts like this is a fun joy ride. As they get closer to the tornado and the rain storm gets worse, Mitzi stops the car, and the reality sinks in that this isn’t an adventure trip after all. She begins to cry but still pretends to the children that everything is just fine as she dejectedly drives home. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that this incident looks like a manic episode from a person with bipolar disorder.

It’s no secret that in real life, Spielberg’s parents got divorced when he was a teenager. Spielberg has also been open about the reason why they got divorced. He talked about it in director Susan Lacy’s 2017 documentary “Spielberg,” as well as in some interviews that he’s given over the years. But the reason why is parents got divorced will be a surprise to many people who watch “The Fabelmans” for the first time, so those details won’t be revealed in this review.

However, it’s enough to say that by the time the family moves to Phoenix, the cracks in the marriage are already starting to show. “The Fabelmans” then fast-forwards to the family’s life in Arizona during the early-to-mid-1960s. Sammy is now a blossoming teenage filmmaker (played by Gabriel LaBelle), who makes short films (mostly Westerns) with his schoolmates and members of his Boy Scout troop. Sammy gets a lot of praise and admiration from most people around him for his filmmaking. Bennie is in Arizona too, working at GE with Burt and often accompanying the Fabelmans on family gatherings.

After some initial skepticism, Sammy’s father Burt eventually becomes impressed with Sammy’s talent for filmmaking, but Burt is not entirely convinced that filmmaking is a good career choice for Sammy. He often tells Sammy to pursue a more “practical” profession. Burt also keeps calling Sammy’s filmmaking a “hobby,” and Sammy is offended by Burt not taking Sammy’s filmmaking seriously as a future career. By contrast, Mitzi is Sammy’s first and biggest filmmaking fan, and she never wavers or has doubts in encouraging Sammy to become a filmmaker.

Reggie (played by Julia Butters), who’s about two or three years younger than Sammy, is intelligent, assertive and opinionated. She’s also the sister who has the closest emotional bond to Sammy, and he values her opinion. (Reggie is based on Spielberg’s real-sister Anne, who became a screenwriter.) For example, while Steven is editing his short films, he sometimes shows Nancy early cuts of the films and asks her what she thinks.

Natalie (played by Keeley Karsten), who’s about four years younger than Sammy, is a polite and obedient kid. She’s based on Steven Spielberg’s middle sister Sue, who’s actually seven years younger than he is. Sammy’s youngest sister Lisa (played by Sophia Kopera), who’s six years younger than Sammy, doesn’t have much of a personality in the movie at all. (Lisa is based on Steven Spielberg’s youngest sister Nancy, who’s actually 10 years younger than he is.)

With the Fabelman kids at an age where they are all now in school, Mitzi begins to take up professional piano playing for radio again. The family members (with Bennie) often gather in their living room to watch Mitzi practice. Burt is reluctant to give any criticism to Mitzi, while Bennie is more forthright and isn’t afraid to tell Mitzi what he thinks.

There’s a telling scene where Mitzi’s long fingernails cause a clacking noise when she plays the piano. Burt denies there’s anything wrong with that, but Bennie says it’s going to be a problem for radio listeners to hear this clacking noise during Mitzi’s piano playing. Mitzi takes pride in her long, well-manicured fingernails and doesn’t want to cut them. She eventually relents when Bennie and some of the kids playfully tackle her, and Bennie cuts her nails.

One of the most memorable sequences in “The Fabelmans” is a fateful camping trip that the family takes while living in Arizona. Everything is going well. Everyone seems to be happy. Sammy is filming everything that he can during this trip.

One night during a campfire, Mitzi spontaneously decides to do a ballet dance in front of Burt, Bennie, Sammy and Reggie while she’s wearing a thin-fabric nightgown. Sammy is filming it, of course. In order to get better lighting, Bennie turns on the headlights of a car parked nearby. The bright lights essentially cause Mitzi’s nightgown to become see-through, and it’s obviously she’s completely naked underneath the gown.

Reggie is mortified, and she runs up to her mother to tell her discreetly that everyone can see through Mitzi’s nightgown. Mitzi ignores her and keeps dancing, while Reggie pleads for her mother to stop. Mitzi keeps dancing, while an annoyed Reggie runs away and says that everyone there is crazy.

Mitzi’s only audience is now Bennie, Burt and Sammy, who keeps the camera focused on Mitzi. All of them are looking at Mitzi, almost as if they’re in a trance. Their fascination with her is for different reasons, which can all be seen on the expressions on their faces. Sammy being in awe isn’t incestuous, although it does come across as a little creepy that he’s staring at his mother’s nearly naked body.

This scene shows that Sammy is so enthralled with his filmmaking and what he’s getting on camera, it’s almost as if he forgot that the woman in the see-through gown in front of him is his own mother. When Mitzi ends the dance, she looks at everyone staring at her with a expression of satisfaction but also a tinge of sadness. Later, when the family looks at the footage, Mitzi praises Sammy by telling him, “You really see me.”

Another pivotal sequence in “The Fabelmans” happens when Mitzi’s uncle Boris (played by Judd Hirsch) shows up at the Fabelmans’ home in Phoenix for a surprise visit. This visit happens after Mitzi had a nightmarish dream that her mother Tina (Boris’ sister) called Mitzi to warn her that something was coming. According to Mitzi, Boris used to bully Tina when Tina was a child, and Mitzi grew up in fear of him too. And so, when Boris arrives at the home, Mitzi greets him with a lot of apprehension, but she eventually relaxes when she sees that Boris is nice to her and her family.

Boris, who is now an elderly man, spent much of his life as a lion trainer in the circus. He has a personality that is eccentric and “in your face.” He’s a raconteur who likes to tell stories about himself, and he has a voice that compels people to pay attention to him. In other words, it’s impossible to ignore Boris when he’s in a room.

When Boris finds out that Sammy is an aspiring filmmaker, he begins to give Sammy advice on what to expect in life if Sammy wants to be an artist. Sammy doesn’t see the connection between being an artist and a circus lion trainer, until Boris explains that there’s no art in putting your head in a lion, but there’s an art in keeping the lion from biting your head while in a lion’s mouth.

Boris warns Sammy that artists will have always have a tug of war between art and family. He also tells Sammy that being an artist also means often being very lonely. Sammy is both awed and intimidated by Boris, especially after Boris puts Sammy in headlock in an awkward way to show Sammy to remember that physical pain every time Sammy has to suffer as an artist.

The last third of “The Fabelmans” could have been its own movie because of all the things that happen. In this part of the film, the Fabelmans move once again—this time to California’s Santa Clara County, because Burt has gotten a major job offer to work for IBM. Mitzi and Sammy (who is in his last year of high school) are very unhappy with this move, and the family starts to crumble over various things. Unlike their life in Arizona, where they lived near several other Jewish families, the Fabelmans are the only Jewish family in their California neighborhood.

At school, Sammy is a misfit loner who gets bullied by the school’s star athletes, led by a conceited pretty boy named Logan Hall (played by Sam Rechner), who is also in his last year of high school. Logan has a weaselly sidekick named Chad Thomas (played by Oakes Fegley), who openly hates Jewish people. Sammy experiences some cruel antisemitism from Chad, Logan and other students who stand by and laugh when Sammy gets bullied for being Jewish.

Sammy also gets caught up in some drama between Logan’s girlfriend Claudia Denning (played by Isabelle Kusman) and Logan. It leads to Sammy getting to closer to Claudia and Claudia’s best friend Monica Sherwood (played by Chloe East), who is a self-described Jesus freak. Monica is fascinated by Sammy being Jewish, so her interest in him is a combination of teenage lust and a desire to turn him on to Christianity.

The last third of “The Fabelmans” is the best part of the movie, but it’s also the messiest. It mostly chronicles Sammy’s last year in high school in California, and it offers a glimpse into his life after high school. (Real-life filmmaker David Lynch has a noteworthy cameo as legendary filmmaker John Ford.) Sammy’s life after high school and during college is so truncated, it’s obvious to viewers that a significant part of the story is missing, to the detriment of the movie, which is already too long. In other words, this story should have been a miniseries, not a feature-length film.

However, there’s no denying that “The Fabelmans” does a stellar job of depicting Sammy coming to terms with the fantasies that he escapes to in filmmaking and the harsh realities of life. The movie also skillfully shows that the two most impactful relationships that Sammy had in his youth are Sammy’s relationship with filmmaking and Sammy’s relationship with his mother. The reasons for the family unraveling are heartbreaking but very realistic.

And it’s why Williams is such a standout in a very talented cast. Her portrayal of Mitzi is far from stereotypical and shows many depths and layers to this complicated person. Mitzi has wonderful qualities as well as damaging flaws. Williams makes this character a full, authentic human being, not just someone reciting lines and emoting on screen.

The other principal cast members do well in their roles. Dano is convincing in playing a character who represses a lot of emotions and denies a lot of problems until it’s too late. LaBelle also turns in an admirable performance, considering it’s not easy for any actor to know that he’s playing a young version of Steven Spielberg. Rogen is perfectly fine as family friend Bennie, but this character doesn’t have a lot of screen time, and Rogen (who’s mostly known as a comedic actor) has had better roles to show his dramatic abilities.

“The Fabelmans” is a specific story but it’s also universal to anyone who can relate to pursuing dreams, even when people doubt that certain goals can be accomplished. The movie’s tone has a middle-class American sheen to it that will get some criticism for glossing over a lot of American society problems in the 1950s and 1960s that still exist today. Antisemitism is part of the story, but racism, sexism, poverty and other social ills are completely erased in this movie.

This omission of any of society’s problems outside of Sammy’s limited world in the 1950s and 1960s speaks to how his young life had its share of turmoil, but it was still in a certain “bubble” where he was blissfully unaware or chose to ignore a lot of society’s problems that weren’t about him. It’s a blind spot that many people carry throughout their lives, but “The Fabelmans” offers no real or meaningful introspection about that blind spot.

“The Fabelmans” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie won the People’s Choice Award, which is the festival’s top prize. Even with any accolades that this movie receives, when people look back on Steven Spielberg’s most beloved films, “The Fabelmans” won’t be at the top of the list for most people. However long-winded this movie can be, it still showcases Spielberg’s talent for telling emotionally genuine stories about families, as well as expressing why people fall in love with filmmaking.

Universal Pictures released “The Fabelmans” in select U.S. cinemas on November 11, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022.

Review: ‘The War With Grandpa,’ starring Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Rob Riggle, Oakes Fegley, Laura Marano, Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken

October 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert De Niro and Oakes Fegley in “The War With Grandpa” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“The War With Grandpa”

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.

Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken in “The War With Grandpa” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

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.

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