Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 27, 2020)
Robert De Niro enjoyed his best year in a long time in 2019. He played prominent roles in two of the year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees: The Irishman and Joker.
Alas, this didn’t carry over to 2020. Partly due to the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, De Niro only appeared in one release for 2020: the kid-oriented comedy The War With Grandpa
Don’t expect any Oscar nominations for this one.
When 70-something widower Ed (De Niro) shows some signs of decline, his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) convinces him to move in with her, husband Arthur (Rob Riggle), and kids Mia (Laura Marano), Peter (Oakes Fegley) and Jenny (Poppy Gagnon). With space tight in their home, Sally evicts 11-year-old Peter from his bedroom and sends him to live in the attic so Ed can take that spot.
Already beset with woes due to his status as “small fish” in middle school, Peter finds himself less than happy with this state of affairs. Rather than accept his new residence in the attic, Peter declares “war” on Ed, with the goal to drive Grandpa out of his bedroom.
Plenty of aging actors find themselves stuck in films that would’ve sounded impossible to believe a few decades ago. Often viewed as the best actor of his generation, no one could’ve imagined in 1990 that De Niro would eventually wind up in puerile efforts like Little Fockers and Dirty Grandpa.
War doesn’t sink quite as low as those two movies, though I suspect that stems more from its desire for a kid-friendly “PG” rating vs. the “PG-13” of Fockers and the “R” of Dirty. War resists the more tawdry and openly offensive material of those others solely to retain the “PG”.
This means we avoid the scatological humor of those movies, with no literal toilet humor on display. The closest War comes to this kind of comedy stems from a running gag in which Arthur sees Ed naked.
Although I feel happy to avoid the grosser side of the spectrum, don’t expect classy humor for War. Instead, it sticks with the lowest common denominator as limited by the restrictions of “PG”.
Will these stabs at amusement work for the film’s young target audience? Perhaps, as they lack the cinematic experience to recognize how stale the comedy tends to be.
Those of us who’ve spent more time in front of movie screens will literally predict jokes and set pieces in advance, though. Not a single surprise emerges from this stale attempt at comedy.
War falters in many other ways as well. For one, the story seems barely coherent, and even the basic premise feels tough to swallow.
Yes, I get that Peter would feel unhappy to need to sacrifice his living quarters for his grandfather. I remember that age well enough to know I’d have thrown the hissiest of fits if my parents attempted to evict me from my room.
Nonetheless, as depicted, Peter just doesn’t seem like the kind of kid who’d attempt a coup of this sort. He comes across as a nice, average 11-year-old, not the sort who would aim such malice at his grandfather.
This feels especially improbable because the movie seems to paint the Ed/Peter relationship as good prior to Ed’s arrival in the home. If War led us to see some distance or animosity between Ed and Peter before he moves in, then we’d accept the “battle” more readily.
As it stands, though, the entire concept just doesn’t fly. Heck, even if we knew Peter hated Ed, it’d be tough to accept that he’d attempt such open hostility and think he could get away with it, but the previously benign relationship renders this notion even more ludicrous.
Perhaps to compensate, War turns Peter into a Grade A Douchebag. This becomes another mistake, as the choices mean the viewer never feels even the slightest affection toward or sympathy for Peter.
Again, in theory we should find ourselves on his side – at least to a degree. Most of the adults in the audience can put ourselves in Peter’s shoes and imagine how we’d feel in the same circumstance.
However, War never allows Peter to become a sympathetic party, as he comes across almost entirely as a jerk. The movie fails to give him a kinder/gentler side that would let us bond with him, so instead, we just see Peter as a prick.
Admittedly, even a more likable Peter wouldn’t fix the movie’s ample flaws, as it’d still come with the same stale humor and cheap jokes. Nonetheless, at least a better depicted lead kid would make the end result more coherent.
Not that logic becomes the strong suit here, as War really consists of little more than a long collection of cheap sight gags. It integrates these moments awkwardly, and the story never manages any flow or sense of coherence.
The closest we come to entertainment stems from the connection of a slumming De Niro with his similarly slumming co-stars Cheech Marin, Christopher Walken and Jane Seymour. All look vaguely embarrassed to find themselves involved in this nonsense, but they give it a go and create minor moments of charm. If only War found a way to get De Niro and Walken into a game of Russian Roulette!
As it stands, War turns into a near complete dud. It avoids rock bottom due to the quality of its cast and its avoidance of gross out humor, but otherwise, I find little to like here.
Footnote: does War name Sally’s teen daughter “Mia” as an homage to Thurman’s iconic role in 1994’s Pulp Fiction? I must imagine this is the case, as it seems too coincidental otherwise.
Footnote Two: although War goes down as De Niro’s sole 2020 release, the production actually shot in 2017. It’s not a sign of studio confidence in a project when it sits on the shelf for three years.