After his turn as the star and producer of the Academy Award nominated film The Irishman, the last project one would expect award winning actor Robert De Niro to be is the PG, family oriented comedy, The War with Grandpa. Directed by Tim Hill (known for Muppets From Space, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run), and written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, 2020’s The War with Grandpa sees you Peter Decker (played by Oakes Fegley) forced out of his room and pushed to the attic when his grandfather Ed (Robert De Niro) moves in with his family. In a desperate attempt to get his room back, Peter declares war on his grandpa. While they both agree to keep this ‘war’ between each other, these seemingly harmless pranks soon escalate and begin to affect their whole family.
You wouldn’t be too wrong to say that the plot seems very simple and more than a bit shallow, so one might expect the rest of a film of this nature to be packed to the brim with slap-stick, gags, sticky situations, and some sweet, heartfelt moments. While the film does have plenty of that, unfortunately, not a lot of it lands. In terms of the humor, there were a few bits that I found amusing, but a lot of it was either poorly timed or felt incomplete. For example, there are two pretty funny setups to overarching jokes that never really pay off. One involving Peter’s mother, Sally (Uma Thurman) throwing stuff out of her car onto a police officer, and one involving Peter’s father Arthur (Rob Riggle) catching Ed pantsless at the most awkward times. Both – especially the cop setup – were quite funny, however, both set ups never pay off or come back in relation to the “comedy comes in threes” rule of writing. There was one comedic set-up, however, that did come to fruition with Sally in relation to her oldest daughter’s (Laura Marano) boyfriend, which also mirrored the conflict between Peter and Ed. It just makes me wonder why they didn’t have a full payoff for the other two jokes. Instead, the film mostly relies on slapstick humor and farce, which for a family film I think works fine for the children, but will leave most teens and adults quite bored.
On the whole, I think the film was a good length and the direction, editing, and music choices helped keep the energy going throughout the film’s runtime. The issues mostly come from a rather shallow plot, a weak conflict, and the fact that there were some plot beats that felt either out of order or were skipped over. With the former points, the plot and stakes of the story really do not go deeper than Peter wanting his room back. Even to that extent, the grandfather not only didn’t want to move in with his family in the first place, but also has no stakes or goals in joining the ‘war,’ except maybe to get his grandson to leave him alone. So there’s very little to get invested in with the very core of the story because the two main character’s motivations are so weak.
With the latter scripting issue, there’s a scene about ⅔ of the way through in which Peter and Ed bond and Peter learns to appreciate his grandfather by putting his ‘war’ aside. However, all of that development is mitigated in the next scene when Peter goes back to his pranking ways. There’s not even really a beat where Peter second guesses his decision to stop messing with his grandfather. Then, in the following scene that leads to the final confrontation, when Peter tries to apologize to his grandfather, it doesn’t feel earned. Back to an early note, the final payoff with Sally confronting her older daughter’s love interest as a sort of mirror to Peter and Ed’s conflict, has no emotional beat of Peter realizing what he has done. This leads the emotional resolution to feel quite forced.
I think that in general the writing for Peter was quite poor. Not only is his central conflict – wanting his room back from his grandfather – rather shallow, but also seeing this young boy prank his aging grandfather for such a shallow goal makes it really hard for us an audience to root for Peter. If it wasn’t for Peter’s chemistry with his friends and for the torment and bullying we see him face at school, Peter would come across as rather selfish and unsympathetic.
It isn’t all quite bad, though. First, I think Robert De Niro is actually quite endearing and charming in this role, which was personally quite surprising. Likewise, I think his chemistry with Oakes Fegley (Pete’s Dragon, The Goldfinch, “Boardwalk Empire”) was also really adorable and delightful. Speaking of Oakes Fegley, despite his character being underdeveloped, I genuinely thought his performance and acting was actually quite captivating and made his character more endearing than he would be otherwise. If there’s anything to take away from this film, it’s that Oakes Fegley is a talent to watch out for. In addition to De Niro and Fegley’s chemistry together, I thought they each had great chemistry with their respective friend groups. Fegley with Juliocesar Chavez, Isaac Kragten, and T.J. McGiboin, and De Niro with Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Walken. I even think their on screen chemistry helped accentuate some of the weaker comedic beats. While I unfortunately do think Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1/Vol. 2) was a bit over the top in her more comedic scenes, I think she and Rob Riggle (21 Jump Street, “The Daily Show”) worked really well together, and I think Riggle had some of the best comedic bits of any character.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
While the actors have great chemistry together and there are a few notably endearing performances, it unfortunately isn’t enough to make up for The War with Grandpa’s flimsy characterization, shallow plot, and weak character development, particularly for Peter. While children will certainly find the over the top slapstick humorous, there isn’t enough for adults to really chew on, say for a few jokes. If anything the actors and their comedic flairs and talent helped elevate the humor. Though there are plenty of better family films out there, if you and your family are looking to turn off your brain for an hour and a half, this film will do the trick, but if you desire something with a little more sustenance, I suggest looking elsewhere.