"The War with Grandpa" too groan-inducing and tiresome to be funny

The War with Grandpa (2020) 

Not every movie needs to be a staggering work of art. Sometimes, a silly escape is okay. Every movie, however, should work on its own terms or be a worthwhile entry in its respective genre. As a slapstick comedy starring Robert De Niro again as a less-dirty grandpa, “The War with Grandpa” is mostly harmless, but that doesn’t make it any less childish and tiresome. The film is over-eager to please, and an unctuous level of desperation shows. Hopefully the cast and director Tim Hill, the auteur behind “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” had a great time making "The War with Grandpa" because it's a groan-inducing chore to watch for those still suffering from 2010's putrid “Little Fockers.” 

When grumpy widower Ed (Robert De Niro) can’t seem to live on his own anymore, adult daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) invites him to come live in her and her husband’s (Rob Riggle) home with their three kids. That means Grandpa taking over the bedroom of the middle child, sixth grader Peter (Oakes Fegley), while he gets the attic. This doesn’t fly with Peter, and easily swayed by his best friends, he stages a war with his grandfather to take back what is his. The pranks escalate from waking Grandpa at night with a remote-controlled truck to replacing shaving cream with fast-drying foam sealant and slipping a snake into Grandpa’s bed (and some of these pranks will backfire on another family member). How long will these two duke it out before putting their differences aside and finding a mutual understanding? 

Based on a 1984 book by Robert Kimmel Smith, “The War with Grandpa” cannot be faulted for being misleading. It is exactly what you expect, but it also has one of those flimsy premises where the characters won’t budge and couldn’t possibly come to a compromise. Boiled down to its essence as the title promises, the film contrives a war where grandson and grandpa are at loggerheads. And such a contrivance could be forgiven were any of the “Dennis the Menace”-like antics actually funny. Director Tim Hill and writing partners Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember strive and strain for laughs where there are very, very few, even before the labored pranks go down. Just within the first three minutes, there is a one-sided food fight with adults. You see, Ed is too grumpy to actually use a self-checkout properly at the grocery store, so he just packs up his groceries and heads out; a grocery-store manager (Faizon Love) is just doing his job and stops him, but of course, a group of passerby think a big Black man is just harassing an older gentlemen and proceed to throw food at him. It's hard to say if it get better or goes downhill from there. This is pretty much a better-shot sitcom, a monotonous one-trick pony of mugging and cloyingly manipulative music cues that tell us when to feel good. In thinking of better films that blended heart and slapstick laughs, 2014's “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” felt lightyears more deft and charming than this ordeal.

In between prestige projects, Robert De Niro seems to like resting on his laurels, as proven with 2016’s unforgettably terrible “Dirty Grandpa.” Playing another grandfather who’s still grieving over the death of his wife, De Niro becomes a punching bag for unfunny punchlines. The Oscar-winner gets to drop his trousers not once, but twice, and flash a horrified Rob Riggle, as if this running gag was intended to be hilarious and for the whole family. Oakes Fegley, so wonderful and unprecocious in 2016’s “Pete’s Dragon,” is reduced to playing an egged-on brat as Peter, to the point that he actually triggers his grandfather’s life alert device, resulting in EMTs breaking into the house. As for the rest of the overqualified cast, Uma Thurman tries hard to sell some of the gags she’s saddled with, and this has to be the laziest waste of Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin, and Jane Seymour (as an electronics store employee), who show up to play dodgeball in a Sky Zone against bratty kids.

Every once in a while, Ed and Peter will sit down and have an actual conversation. And then, just when the film seems to be calming down, it goes right back to its overblown war antics in the name of desperate farce. If you see a jar of marbles, you better believe those marbles are going to fall on the floor and make someone trip. Cue the line, “Grandpa lost his marbles.” Or, take the embarrassment gag where Ed attends a funeral, only for his phone to go off—with Reel 2 Real’s “I Like to Move It” ringtone no less, thanks to his sneaky grandson—and fall into the casket and down the pant leg of the deceased. When Ed gets electrocuted fixing Christmas lights, causing the ladder to crash-land on a bouncy house and set off an entire chain of events that results in a tree falling into the house, Ed asks, “Oh, what have we done?” Our sentiments exactly. Forgettable mediocrity incarnate and sometimes worse than that, “The War with Grandpa” leaves one grumpy and annoyed when we're supposed to be touched and amused. What’s more, we are threatened with a part two.

Grade: D

101 Studios released “The War with Grandpa” (94 min.) in theaters on October 9, 2020.