‘THE WAR WITH GRANDPA”

Published On October 20, 2020 | By Matt Neufeld | FILM REVIEWS

“THE WAR WITH GRANDPA”
​Starring Robert De Niro, Oakes Fegley, Uma Thurman, Rob Riggle, Laura Marano, Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour, Christopher Walken
Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember
Based on “The War with Grandpa” by Robert Kimmel Smith
Directed by Tim Hill
Produced by Marvin Peart, Rosa Morris Peart and Phillip Glasser
Cinematography by Greg Gardiner
Edited Peter S. Elliot and Craig Herring
Music by Aaron Zigman

By Matt Neufeld
The Washington Film Institute

“The War with Grandpa” wants so much to be, and tries so hard to be, and blatantly rips off of, “Home Alone,” this new disappointing movie ends up failing at that lofty goal, and simply results in simply existing as a below-average, deflating, forgettable, oddball curiosity on several levels, and, at times, it’s just an outright embarrassment.

There are many questions left drifting about in the mind after watching movies such as this, with the biggest question usually being–and this is not being snarky, mean, rude, disrespectful, unprofessional or anything else negative–“How on earth did this movie get made?”

There’s nothing exceptional about this movie on any level–not in terms of production, direction, writing, acting, story, plot, humor, drama, tragedy, story or character or plot development, characterization, cinematography, production design, art design, costuming and make-up, editing, music or other basic filmic elements. The movie just sort of sits there, drifts along, exists and abruptly ends, all with very little true emotion, humor, suspense, tension, conflict or insight. Of course, the filmmakers had a basic one-line-idea premise and story, but despite some obvious efforts to succeed on some levels, the writers, director and actors just couldn’t overcome the basic, inherent sub-standard, average-to-poor script, story, scenes and dialogue, all of which never overcome below-mediocre levels of bad television sitcom execution.

And this segues into the next question, which is directly related to the first question: “How on earth did the producers somehow rope in such quality actors as Robert De Niro, Oakes Fegley (he’s a kid, and he was probably about 11 or 12 during filming, but he’s very talented), Uma Thurman, Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken to act in this project, and why on earth did Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken even agree to act in this movie?” Again–this isn’t being disrespectful or rude. It’s a valid question. The film is so below-average, mundane, cliched and at time just bad, it’s understandable to wonder how actors end up in these types of productions–especially considering that De Niro, Thuman, Marin, Seymour and Walken don’t need to take these types of jobs–they’re all at the point in their careers where they can pick and choose what projects to take, and they should be at a point where they can know better than to sign on to such movies as this, especially if they read the script in advance. Sometimes, with certain actors at certain points in their careers, it really is okay to just politely shake your head and say “no” and move on to the next script.

Oakes Fegley, an absolutely charming, cute, funny and energetic kid actor with a strong presence and advanced comedic and acting chops for such a young guy, can be excused. When you’re a young actor in Hollywood–or anywhere else–and you have talent and presence and energy, and you’re offered a project, you take it. Fegley, who’s about 15 now and has already been acting for several years and has several movies on his resume, can only be praised for his performance in “War with…” and he is enjoyable, watchable, cute and fun in this movie. However, he’s simply dealing with the same general distraction and problem as all of the other quality actors trying their best here–they’re trying to overcome, and trying to deal with that aforementioned poorly-written, poorly-constructed, poorly-executed and poorly-thought-out screenplay.

“The War with Grandpa” clearly shows that you can indeed gather together an ensemble of literally some of the best actors working today, or at any time–in this case, Fegley, De Niro, Thurman, Marin, Seymour and Walken–and even though it’s clear that the actors are talented, have presence, have energy and are trying hard to succeed–no matter what you do, in some cases on some sets, try as you might try, the filmmakers simply cannot overcome stale, cliched, unoriginal and unfunny scripts, stories, scenes and dialogue.

Which brings this discussion back to that unfortunate script. The script, although based on a book by Robert Kimmel Smith, still, as presented in the final film, comes across as a lame, misguided attempt to recreate the thoroughly better and enjoyable and original “Home Alone” classic film from 1990. “The War with…” brings to mind yet another lesson in filmmaking: Do not try to rip off the basic ideas, stories, plots, schemes and scenes of an earlier classic, in any manner. Because, generally, you’re going to fail, and when you fail while ripping off and stealing from a classic, you fail on an even bigger level. This is what happens with “The War with Grandpa.” The movie simply wants to be so “Home Alone” so badly, it just falls apart once it’s clear that this movie is not “Home Alone”–and it’s not even as bad at the lame “Home Alone” sequels, which are themselves similar lessons in rip-off, unoriginal, cliched, follow-the-leader filmmaking.

“The War…” ostensibly tries to tell a story about an elderly grandfather, gamely, somewhat spiritedly portrayed by De Niro, who moves into his daughter’s family’s house, thus uprooting the resident 12-year-old son, who is, as mentioned, played well by Oakes Fegley, from his spacious, cool room. Naturally, since this is a sitcom movie, Oakes’ character, Peter, has to move into the attic. Of course! And also of course, the attic has rats and other critters and is spooky and unkempt. Of course it is! Of course, the movie doesn’t address the fact that a house’s attic has rats scurrying around, and a 12-year-old is asked to live in a room with rats, but that’s the type of little continuity script error that this movie, and movies like this, casually disregard. Yes, we know it’s a comedy, and in a comedy, the attic room has rats. But the larger issue is how gags and jokes like this are presented in the context of this film–there’s no irony, no sharp edges, no dark satire, no evil humor. It’s just…rats in the attic.

Little filmic, script and story details like this–jokes presented simply as jokes, without any hint or sense or real or original humor–litter this movie. There are attempts at jokes and gags–it’s obvious that somewhere along the line the writers and director had what they thought or perceived or conceived as humorous ideas–but, again, the jokes and gags mostly fall flat. And it is mostly flat and unfunny–there’s barely any real laughs in this movie. And it should be a movie filled with laughs.

The blame falls solidly and completely on writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember and director Tim Hill. Again, all three completely fail to bring any originality to the proceedings. They also fail to bring any tension, suspense, irony, satire, in-jokes, out-jokes, subversiveness, playfulness, style, charisma or even emotion to the proceedings. It’s just oddly plastic, formulaic, cookie-cutter, cold–and bland. “The War…” is, basically, everything that “Home Alone” wasn’t.

“The War…” needed skilled screenwriters, and, even if the screenplay was still bland and unoriginal, the film would still need a skilled director who could take a bad screenplay and somehow turn the script into at least an interesting, skilled, edgy, satiric–and entertaining–film. Several actually talented film directors who have proven themselves adept at handling original, insightful, slightly dark and edgy films that still manage to appeal to kids and adults alike–such as, say, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner or Joe Dante, to name just a few–could possibly–that’s possibly, still–have done wonders with the script and direction of “The War with Grandpa.” As the movie exists now under the direction of Tim Hill (“SpongeBob SquarePants” on television and the movies “Muppets from Space,” “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Hop,” “Max Keeble’s Big Move”), Hill just seems comfortable–too comfortable–with simply going through the motions, wallowing in cheap slapstick gags and unfunny jokes, and riffing off just simply the sheer presence, charisma and energy of the big-time actors who he and the producers somehow conned into committing to this project. Alas, Hill isn’t up to the task, and his direction does not improve upon the less-than-stellar, cliched screenplay.

All of that said, here’s what needs to be done now: As noted, Oakes, De Niro, Thurman (who, it must be noted, at 46 or 47 when the movie was filmed–this movie was actually completed three years ago, in 2017–looks absolutely beautiful and fifteen years younger), Marin, Seymour (also looking pretty damn stunning at 65 or 66 when the movie was filmed), and Walken need to be hired for a completely different film, but still together, as an ensemble. These talented actors seem to be having a good time in this movie, despite its many faults, and there does seem to be some hint–but just a hint, mind you–of a chemistry among these veteran actors, Fegley included. So they need to be hired to act together in some other project where their age has absolutely nothing–zero–to do with their characters. Give them dignified, stylish, classy, intelligent roles where they play simply normal, well-off, well-educated, informed people with a script that displays and showcases that talent, classiness, stylishness and intelligence. And also give them smart, veteran, mature direction that provides a concurrent dignified setting–and let them shine on like these talented actors should be shining on.

We’re far past the idea that older actors only need to play “older” people, say, with physical, mental, financial or social problems or issues. That’s ridiculous–and it’s cliched, stereotyping, undignified and disrespectful. Of course, today, more than ever, senior citizens are active, productive, creating, acting, singing, dancing, producing, directing, running, jogging, biking, hiking, swimming, working out, building, drawing, painting, lawyering, doctoring, managing, inventing, working, and, yes, in regards to Joe Biden at 77, even running for president of the United States. In other words, movies and television shows today need to show senior citizens in positions of dignity, activity, productivity and power. Show seniors as the knowledgeable, educated, experienced and talented people that they are. That’s what we need to see senior citizens as in our movies, plays and television shows. (We know that Thurman, at 50 now, in 2020, is not a senior citizen, but it’s the major point of letting actors of a certain age play dignified, respectful roles that is the over-riding point here.)

​And, the moment that we see De Niro, Thurman, Marin, Seymour and Walken, and the now-teenaged Oakes Fegley in dignified roles working from a dignified script with dignified production and direction in an overall dignified film that, again, truly showcases their true thespian talents, the sooner that all of us can quickly forget about “The War with Grandpa” and move on with our lives to bigger and better movie memories.

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