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Review: ‘The War With Grandpa’ is a kind of family-friendly hell

Robert De Niro and Oakes Fegley are the combatants in "The War With Grandpa."
I may destroy you: Robert De Niro and Oakes Fegley are the combatants in “The War With Grandpa.”
(Ben Rothstein)

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

The calculus behind the family-targeted “The War With Grandpa” isn’t hard to reverse engineer: One-sentence logline (kid and grandfather engage in “war” over who gets bedroom); loud score, kids and slapstick galore for the younger crowd; respected actors to draw the older. The cast includes Christopher Walken, Jane Seymour, Cheech Marin and, in the lead, Robert Freaking De Niro. That’s a pile of parts, all right, but only Elmer’s glue holding them together.

The problems begin with the premise, from Robert Kimmel Smith’s 1984 novel. Recently widowed Grandpa Ed (De Niro) has to move in with the family of his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman — respected actors, remember?). She and husband Arthur (Rob Riggle, always good to see) give their son Peter’s room to Ed, banishing the boy to the eventually well-appointed attic. Peter (Oakes Fegley of “Pete’s Dragon”), who supposedly loves his grandpa, declares war on the warmhearted, bad-kneed old fellow, attacking him with loud noises at night and more injurious pranks.

One imagines there is a sliver of the populace that would find that idea a laff riot with two Fs. This reviewer didn’t chortle at a heartbroken, gentle septuagenarian watching the carefully collected mementos of his life’s work disappear (in one assault), then taking a hard fall — just because some brat wants his room back. Per formula, things escalate until major property damage occurs, which changes hearts. Because, you know, property.

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Directed by Tim Hill (“Hop,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks”) with the subtlety of a bouncing anvil, scenes are often played at a pitch above human experience. It’s from the comedic school of “louder, bigger, the music will tell them what to feel.” Family members are off-puttingly rude to each other. The improbable slapstick falls flat. Riggle and De Niro try to find some soupçon of calm amid the storms of pratfalls, but their being moored to some kind of reality only reinforces how unmoored the rest of the film feels.

De Niro isn’t plumbing emotional depths as in “Falling in Love” or “The Deerhunter” or anything like that, but he’s believable as a guy who has dedicated himself to being a good husband, father, grandfather and provider and is now coping with deep loss and a hard life transition — only to be assaulted by an out-of-control little jerk. There’s a charge of excitement to see De Niro reunited onscreen with Walken. That dissipates quickly, though, as the two cinematic greats can’t overcome the fusillade of Big Comedy.

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Robert De Niro finds himself at odds with his grandson in the broad family comedy, “The War with Grandpa.”

Despite the film’s wave at a soft center, nothing lands emotionally. It’s probably a stretch to get viewers to sympathize with the unbearable brattiness of the boy whose relentless attacks on his grandfather verge on elder abuse. The “pranks” just aren’t funny. The whole premise isn’t funny. Maybe if Grandpa were some miserable old coot and the boy an antidote to his awfulness …?

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Perhaps some folks, somewhere, can side with an entitled boy torturing a loving grandparent to get what he wants, but most will ask of this “War,” what is it good for?

'The War with Grandpa'

Rated: PG, for rude humor, language, and some thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Release info: Starts Oct. 9, Mission Tiki Drive-in, Montclair; Rubidoux Drive-in; Riverside; and in limited release where theaters are open


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