Amid the stale jokes and flat direction to be found in THE WAR WITH GRANDPA, one is subjected to cartoonish takes on elder abuse, child abuse, and I’m pretty sure that the bass didn’t enjoy its time during the fishing sequence. Based on the book of the same name by Robert Kimmel Smith, the film has been on the shelf for over three years, which is almost never a good sign. Still, there is a stroke of sheer genius to be found in casting Robert De Niro as the titular relative. Sure, the part could have been entirely cringeworthy, but De Niro avoids the worst of the schmaltz as a grieving widower, while showing little of gift for the slapstick the role requires. Let me sum it up this way: dodgeball on trampolines. Yet, when he faces off with his character’s aggrieved 5th-grader of a grandson, played with surprising gravitas by Oakes Fegley, there are intimations of what could have been. This isn’t De Niro mugging at the camera, this is a wise guy defending his turf against a worthy opponent, which makes the rest of the proceedings all the more irksome.
Fegley is Peter, a good kid entering a world of hurt when he starts the 5th grade and attracts the school bully’s special attention, and a world of resentment when he’s forced to give up his room when his otherwise beloved grandfather moves in. Not that Grandpa is any too pleased with the situation that his daughter (Uma Thurman) has pressured him into after an unfortunate run-in with the self-checkout at his local grocery store. In the name of familial concern and filial duty, Grandpa relocates, and Peter takes up residence in the attic with a malicious bat and a teething mouse. Egged on by his ragtag gang of friends, he makes a formal declaration of war (slipped under the older gentleman’s door), and the two of them set about making life miserable for each other using a series of escalating pranks and practical jokes, but with the solemn promise that they not will not cause any collateral damage, nor give the game away to the rest of the family. Why they think said family won’t notice bumps in the night and various abrasions and bruises on our protagonists is never adequately explained.
The ensuing mayhem feels painfully forced, with Thurman overplaying her part so egregiously that it becomes parody. Add such hackneyed tropes as Peter’s teenage sister Mia (Laura Marano) getting too chummy with her boyfriend, much to Mom’s distress, and Peter’s kid sister, Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon) being unbearably cute, not to mention fixated on Christmas as a way of life, and there are long stretches of the film that are all but unwatchable. Oh, and grandpa never liked his son-in-law (Rob Riggle), a non-entity that not even the elf-apron at Jennifer’s predictably catastrophic birthday party can enliven.
Thank the beneficent gods of cinema that there is another stroke of genius in casting Cheech Marin and Christopher Walken as grandpa’s buddies. Sure, they’re playing versions of their well-defined movie personas, but these are actors who have finely honed those personas, and, more importantly, they provide the comic relief this effort so badly needs. It’s almost worth enduring for the sight of Walken in full Santa regalia trying to put the little girl oh his knee at ease. Whatever you are imagining, it’s even better. Almost. As for why Jane Seymour is there as the fourth member of grandpa’s gang, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to spend any real time in pondering.
THE WAR WITH GRANDPA aims at some moral lessons about family, conflict, and the dangers of obsessing over any one particular holiday, but fails to find the target, much less hit it. One comes away wishing that more screen time could have been given to Walken. Maybe all of it.