Robert DeNiro makes another baffling script choice with a bland family comedy about a spoiled kid who can’t bear to give up his bedroom.
I saw The War with Grandpa the way it was meant to be seen: on a 12-inch Chromebook from 2013 in a minimized window because it wouldn’t stop freezing in full screen and wouldn’t play at all on my real computer. Ah, the cinema! There is truly no better way to enjoy Uma Thurman and Robert De Niro’s immeasurable talents for showing up to work and earning a paycheck. It’s one of a handful of films actually making it to the big screen this fall, but this is not the feature to risk death from COVID-19 for (arguably, no film is, please stop going to the theater until there’s a vaccine… but I digress). The point is that The War with Grandpa is not worth watching on a functional laptop from the current decade, let alone dying for.
Based on the book by Robert Kimmel Smith, whose only other work of note is Chocolate Fever—an extremely in-your-face parable about sweet moderation–it’s your standard Hollywood shlock. We meet Peter Decker (Oakes Fegley), a young boy being forced to give up his bedroom to his grandfather Ed (De Niro). And…that’s sort of it. That’s the whole plot. Boy doesn’t want to give up his bedroom despite the fact that he is moving into…another private bedroom. Okay, sure, it’s in the attic, but as a child in a family of five who didn’t have her own room until she was 20, I don’t really have any sympathy for the kid.
Nevertheless, bitter over the loss of what was once his, Peter declares war on Grandpa Ed and Home Alone–inspired hijinks ensue. Or at least was passes for them in director Tim Hill’s (Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, Alvin and the Chipmunks) eyes.
To be honest, this film is bad in exactly the ways you’d expect it to be bad based on the trailers. This isn’t 2020’s CATS or Serenity (2019), whose sheer insanity more or less immediately made them must-watches for the general public if only so they could say first-hand exactly how insane they were. This is a much more blasé level of bad.
This film is bad in exactly the ways you’d expect it to be bad based on the trailers.
It would take the herculean efforts of a show like The Worst Idea of All Time to discover anything that makes this film worthwhile. In the show, hosts Guy Montgomery and Tim Batt watch the same bad movie every week for an entire year. It’s how they discovered whatever was salvageable of Grown-Ups 2. So perhaps if you watched The War with Grandpa 52 times in a single year, similar nuggets of joy or madness could be unearthed. Maybe then it’d be easier to dissect why, exactly, the objectively preposterous scene where Academy Award winners Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken team up with Cheech Marin to don streetwear and throw a child into a dumpster reads as yawn-inducing instead of eye-buggingly wild.
There are many such moments as this, moments that should feel memorable for their insanity. Instead, they all fall flat. Hill seems so intent on making this a heartwarming family affair, it’s as if he doesn’t realize the power of the material in his hands. He opts for what are meant to be tender moments of reflection and an acknowledgement of the difficulty of aging and the importance of strong family bonds instead of leaning into the mess that he has. None of it works, and the way in which it doesn’t work is just dull.
To put is plainly, leaning into the absurdity is what could have saved it. I don’t promise that it would be good, no there’s no guarantee of that in this case. But to simply make bolder, wilder choices throughout—to up the ante on the pranks to Saw-level deviousness, to push Thurman, De Niro, and Walken to go absolutely ham—could have transformed the entire experience.
Instead, we get a film that was left in development hell for about two years after production wrapped and it’s been plopped out in theaters in the middle of a pandemic because not even the producers particularly care if anyone sees this. It is also creeping its way into drive-ins, which might be the only thing that really helps it make a buck. The sheer fact that there’s almost nothing else new to see might take the bottom line from the red to the black, but that’s about the best we can hope for here.
Save your pennies and whatever brain cells you have left at this point in quarantine (I know mine are dwindling) and watch anything with more of a soul than this.
The War With Grandpa is in theaters (for some reason) now