Movie Guru: ‘The War with Grandpa’ offers a surprisingly wholesome family film
“The War with Grandpa” isn’t exactly what it looks like.
From the trailers, I had assumed it was another entry in the recent “let’s make wacky R-rated comedies featuring kids” trend that started with last year’s relative hit “Good Boys.” This seemed supported by the presence of Robert DeNiro, who has shown his fondness for absurd comic naughtiness in both the “Fockers” movies and 2016’s “Dirty Grandpa.” The addition of Christopher Walken, who’s history of raunchy comedy roles would take most of the rest of this review, only seemed to seal the deal.
And yes, there is something of a running gag involving DeNiro accidentally exposing himself to his son-in-law that seems to come straight from that alternate-universe version of the movie. The strange thing is that the rest of “The War with Grandpa,” which opens in theaters this Friday, is that it’s so sweet and wholesome it wouldn’t actually be out of place on the Hallmark Channel. If you look past the pratfalls and that one running gag, there’s a lot of stuff in here about the loving each other as a family and the caustic nature of argument escalation.
The story, which is based on a book by Robert Kimmel Smith, follows Peter, a sixth-grader whose grandfather has recently moved into his house. Specifically, into his bedroom, kicking Peter into the leaky, animal-infested attic. His frustration builds into an escalating prank war with his grandfather that gets meaner and meaner with every round, until a massive final confrontation that leaves Peter wondering just what he was hoping to win out of all this.
There’s a lot of slapstick style action, both from the actual prank battle and from side-effects such as a snake that naturally ends up where it’s not supposed to. DeNiro and Oakes Fegley, who plays Peter, are both game participants when it come to both causing and suffering through the chaos. Uma Thurman, who plays Peter’s mother and DeNiro’s daughter, also shows that she’s much more willing to embrace the silliness than I gave her credit for.
It’s the emotion, though, that really surprised me. The movie touches on everything from dealing with grief to being a good parent to how a simple argument can blossom into a full-out vicious war. The movie doesn’t really go into too much detail with any of these, but each time they come up the movie pushes the goofiness aside so they can focus on the more emotional message. DeNiro and Thurman both support several of these emotional notes with some nuanced, heartfelt acting.
Unfortunately, all of that sometimes sits oddly with the vicious tone some of the pranks can take (and the aforementioned running gag). Fegley also has more trouble with the emotional moments than his adult co-stars, but sometimes his earnestness is enough to carry him through.
Sometimes, the movie’s earnestness is enough to carry it through as well.
The War with Grandpa
Rated PG for rude humor, language, and some thematic elements
Screenplay by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember
Based on the book by Robert Kimmel Smith
Directed by Tim Hill
Starring Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Rob Riggle, Oakes Fegley, Laura Marano, Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour, Christopher Walken, and more
Grade: Two stars
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.
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