For a film as cursed as family comedy The War with Grandpa, shot back in 2017 then sidelined and sold as a result of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, it’s a very minor victory to report that rather than being bad, it’s merely bland, an adequate milquetoast time-waster for a very young and very undiscerning audience. What makes that description slightly harder to stomach is the unusually stacked cast – two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro, Oscar winner Christopher Walken, Oscar nominee Uma Thurman – whose combined star power gently lifts rather than carries a film that’s leagues beneath them.
It’s glumly become the sort of sleepwalk role we now expect of De Niro, an actor with an ever-diminishing batting average, whose note-perfect performance in last year’s The Irishman was more exception than rule. He’s returning to the titular role of Grandpa, after shagging and swearing his way through Dirty Grandpa, to play a PG-rated technology-hating, wife-grieving cipher of a man whose latest misadventure (stealing food after losing his cool with a supermarket self-checkout – groan) has his daughter (Thurman) insist that he comes to stay with her family. But a shortage of rooms means that he has to turf grandson Peter (Oakes Fegley) out of his bed, sending him to the attic, leading to a farcical, yet low-stakes, battle of escalating pranks.
Based on the book by Robert Kimmel Smith, there’s a decent kernel of an idea here and the script, from writing partners Tom J Astle and Matt Ember, briefly flirts with something more substantial, at least in the first act. An unmoored and displaced grandparent is understandably reluctant to allow himself to be taken care of and there are a few quiet moments, nicely played by De Niro, that show a man struggling to find his place in a world without his wife. But by the third time we see him pick up a framed photo of his dearly departed, we start realising that creativity is in short supply along with characterisation and the film falls into a repetitive back-and-forth between the duelling relatives.
It’s slickly made by longtime family film director Tim Hill and there’s a decent enough budget to give it a sheen so often missing from its streaming equivalents but there’s no amount of gloss that can distract from its one-note vacuity, something even its high-wattage cast can’t fix. There’s no longer any novelty in seeing De Niro goof around in a series of slapstick scenarios and instead, it’s rather depressing especially given the lack of ingenuity on display here (he accidentally flashes his son-in-law twice). He’s as bored as we are and while Thurman gives it a bit more effort, it’s also embarrassing to see her act the clown for a film as rote and unnecessary as this. Watching them, along with Walken, trudge their way through this kind of slop, all one can hope is that their paycheques were worth it and that their upcoming slates allow for some swift redemption.
Even when a film is aimed at such a young, undemanding audience, there are still ways to elevate but Astle and Ember keep things base-level, defiantly ignoring the enjoyment of anyone over the age of 12 and giving those within its target demographic very little that feels unique or even vaguely amusing. The “war” at its centre is too benign to register, each prank dumber than the last, and the whole film is scuppered by a major plot hole: that somehow despite loud, property-destroying acts of aggression, no one else in the family notices their feud until the very end.
The fact that The War with Grandpa finally dragged itself off from the shelf is something of a win but now that we’re able to see it, the real loser is us.