One of the movies I missed in 2020.

At this point, in the third decade of the 21st Century, "terrible late-career comedies starring the formerly great actor Robert De Niro" has become its own genre, and I don't think there's a person among us who would claim that it's a good one. Even so, The War with Grandpa is impressively terrible. The warning signs were all front and center: it's not just a comedy, it's a children's comedy, which is an even more appalling graveyard for gone-to-seed actors; it was directed by Tim Hill, the can't-win auteur behind such gems as Alvin and the Chipmunks and Hop; and perhaps worst of all, it was shot and ready to go three years before it finally oozed its way into theaters in October 2020, where it became the most critically-derided film to ride the COVID-19 pandemic to a victory over the decimated North American box office.

Technically, that multi-year delay isn't the film's fault: it was one of the films that got caught into the black hole of the Weinstein Company disintegrating, finding itself without a distributor. But it's extremely obvious why this wouldn't have been one of the titles anybody would want to pounce on for their very own, even with a proper star like De Niro attached. It is a beastly, miserable thing to sit through. Let us simply consider the scenario - and I would remind you of my belief that any scenario can be made to work in the execution, even this one. Old widower Ed (De Niro) is no longer capable of living on his own: he backs over his mailbox, he gets confused and shoplifts, he's just falling apart altogether. So his daughter, Sally (Uma Thurman), decides to force him to move in with her, and her husband Arthur (Rob Riggle), and their children Mia (Laura  Marano), Peter (Oakes Fegley), and Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon). Everybody's unhappy about this, but Peter is least happy of all, since his grandfather is going to be moved into his room, while he's reassigned to the cramped, rat-infested attic. So he decides to play a series of meanspirited pranks on Ed, less to drive the old man away, than simply to make him miserable. Ed, for his part, has the empathy to understand that Peter just feels out of control, the wisdom to play along so the boy can work out what he needs to, and the sheer vindictive streak of his own to want to make the kid suffer just as bad. Also, it's suggested that this is the first actually fun thing he's done in his lonely dotage. So the two of them formally lay out a declaration of war, with rules of combat and all

I'm sure you can make this work, and to his credit, Hill seems to have spotted one way to do it: play this all as very light, very gentle family comedy, more motivated by warm moments and loose limber rhythms than by gags and bits (another way would be to simply learn into the cruel misanthropy of it, but it's hard to imagine that happening as long as the film officially targeting a family audience). And so The War with Grandpa has a great many scenes that go for quietly underplaying the character relationships, with everything having a distinctly dozy quality, an "aw shucks" mood of people just sitting and thinking. Now, I say that Hill "seems to" have done this, because the fact remains that The War with Grandpa is a broad-ass comedy, and so all of these quiet, warm character moments have to share scenes with, just as a for-example, De Niro slipping on marbles and landing flat on his back in a bit of slapstick that somehow takes three shots to convey. Or the sheer quantity of insane, demeaning pratfalls to which Thurman is subjected across the course of the movie, which she attempts to put across by contorting her face into rubbery grimaces where she cranks her jaw aaalll the way this direction and rolls her eyes aaalll the way that direction and tries to make it seem like she figured this was close enough to Jerry Lewis-stile comedy that at least somebody in the cast ought to be doing a Jerry Lewis-style performance. And the effort is appreciated, though it's a losing battle, especially with that character, and the best Thurman is able to do is to make it feel like her loss of dignity was her choice and not something foisted upon her by the script.

(The film is actually quite long on actors who deserve better making asses of themselves: Jane Seymour, Christopher Walken, and Cheech Marin are all onhand to stiffly populated the dotty old people stock types of the film's undernourished B-plot. Admittedly, Walken and Marin have done plenty of equally embarrassingwork in the past, but there's still something acutely galling at watching them try to peppy and FUN! while talking like somebody's tragic wannabe-cool aunt who just discovered Instagram).

But the heart [sic] and soul [sic] of the thing is all on Fegley and De Niro, who are the objects of all the film's main comic setpieces, which are basically all it has in lieu of a meaningfully-developed storyline. It's a startlingly meanspirited film, doing such a good job of convincing us of Peter's bottomless well of resentment for his grandfather, through the enthusiastic  joy with which he concocts new ways of tormenting Ed both physically and emotionally, that it starts to lose the thread on where "sad kid dealing with stress" ends and "tween psychopath relishing the damage he causes" begins. Maybe if the film wasn't so shaggy in its pacing, so anxious to hand out lots of low-key character moments in between the jokes, they wouldn't feel so tone-deaf. And maybe if Hill had put literally any energy into trying to make Fegley and De Niro were acting in remotely the same emotional registers in something resembling the same movie, enough to get some kind of spark of familial sweetness between them, it would feel like their behavior as coming from something other than bored malice.

But none of this happens, so we keep getting this ungainly, ugly, depressing hybridisation of a playful family dramedy and over-the-top physical humor that is bound solely by the rules of cartoon logic. And then over there on the planet Mars, Thurman mugging and hamming away like a silent movie clown. Any one of these approaches might have worked - might have at least ended up with something harmlessly annoying, the kind of thing parents drift off during while their kids dutifully force themselves to laugh at all the things marked out as comedy - but all of them together turns The War with Grandpa into a perversely dismal experience.