Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Robert De Niro: A Dirty Grandpa Leaves the Mean Streets Behind

Today I learned that something called Dirty Grandpa had just grossed $11.1 million in its opening weekend, finishing 4th at the box office. Though it did well with ticket-buyers, the critics -- almost without exception -- have hated this movie. Richard Roeper, for one, denied the flick a single star, writing that “If Dirty Grandpa isn’t the worst movie of 2016, I have some serious cinematic torture in my near future.”

Dirty Grandpa (not to be confused with Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) is a would-be comedy featuring a foul-mouthed old man whose attitudes are offensive in almost every conceivable way. The gist of the plot is that he kidnaps his uptight grandson (Zac Efron) and drags him on a road trip to Florida. Shockingly, the character is played by the great Robert De Niro, who seems to be making a point of starring in innocuous would-be laugh-fests.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an an actor known for his dramatic skills turning to comedy. It was the great 19th century thespian Edmund Kean who is reputed to have uttered, on his death bed, the immortal show biz maxim, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Certainly the skill of our favorite comic actors, like Jack Lemmon, Steve Martin, and the late, great Robin Williams, is nothing to sneeze at. And I’ve personally enjoyed De Niro in such comedic films as Meet the Parents and particularly Analyze This, in which—playing a Mafia boss with neuroses—he seemed to be parodying his classic gangster roles of the past.

I have De Niro on the brain right now because of a recent airline trip, on which I attempted to watch his amiable 2015 comedy, The Intern. As seems so often to happen with those seatback television set-ups, the sound wasn’t good, so that I lost a good deal of the dialogue. Then at the midpoint, the transmission failed entirely. No matter—as is true with so many of Nancy Meyers’ film projects, it was easy enough to predict the ending.  It seems Anne Hathaway is a brilliant young clothing designer who heads a thriving e-commerce start-up. She’s a workaholic with a cute kid, a shaky marriage, and an intensely hands-on management style. Into her life comes a seventy-year old widower (De Niro) who has traded retirement for a slot in a senior citizen internship program. Of course Hathaway is skeptical of his presence within her trendy loft headquarters. But (although his briefcase and formal suits make him stand out among the company’s hipsters) his business savvy and general common sense turn out to be a godsend, and ultimately set her on the right path.

What’s surprising in The Intern is how convincingly De Niro plays nice. Even a touch of meekness is not beyond his skills. But I’ve got to say that I miss the De Niro of old, the one who was unpredictable and dangerous. I’m talking about the volatile Johnny Boy of Mean Streets, the haunted young Vito Corleone of The Godfather, Part II, the fanatical Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, the downright scary Max Cady of Cape Fear. Especially for Martin Scorsese, De Niro has played a panoply of mobsters and monsters that movie fans will never forget. More recently, David O. Russell has given him rich roles too, like the father (and obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan) in Silver Linings Playbook, a film that successfully melded comedy and depth of feeling. I’m glad De Niro feels no inclination to rest on his laurels. But I hope he will confine himself to projects that are worthy of his talent.

I have no inclination to see this film, but because I'm writing a book on the long-range impact of "The Graduate," this advertising image gave me quite a chuckle.

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