If you had sat down “Taxi Driver”-era Robert De Niro, “Pulp Fiction”-era Uma Thurman, and “The Deer Hunter”-era Christopher Walken and told them, “Someday you’ll all be appearing in a PG family comedy called ‘The War With Grandpa,’” what would they have said? What could they have said? “I guess I’ll need the money by then”? “At least I’ll be among friends”? “How terrible could it be?”
Not that terrible, but dispiritingly generic — the kind of off-brand, cable-ready product that functions as advertised but could have been cast with anybody other than some of the most unique and celebrated performers of their generations. That includes Oakes Fegley, the talented young star of “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Goldfinch,” and Todd Haynes’s “Wonderstruck,” who’s opposite De Niro as a suburban kid aching to get even with his grandfather for taking his bedroom.
Peter (Fegley) is so put out when the arrival of irascible Grandpa Ed (De Niro) forcibly relocates him to the attic that he embarks on a battle of attrition, one that escalates when Grandpa joins in and the rules of engagement are established. (No squealing; no collateral damage to siblings, parents, or property.) By far the most successful scenes in “The War With Grandpa” deal with the complicated pranks the two play on each other: foam insulation replacing Grandpa’s shaving cream, Peter’s bedroom furniture relieved of its screws, etc. The culmination is a bit involving a funeral, an open casket, and a runaway cellphone blaring “I Like to Move It” that is shamelessly and undeniably hilarious.
On the debit side we get a dodgeball game involving Peter and his classmates on one side and Ed and cronies Jerry (Walken), Danny (Cheech Marin), and Diane, a Best Buy clerk played by Jane Seymour, that hinges on whether Walken’s character gets hit in the testicles. I will say that the actor gives a delightfully weird spin to all of his lines, including the deathless “No nutsies!” At least someone’s having fun.
But pity poor Thurman, stuck in the thankless Mom role — complete with needlepoint — and unable to unleash her inner “Kill Bill” warrior until the very end (and only then, sort of). “The War With Grandpa” has been adapted from a kids book by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember and is facelessly directed by Tim Hill; it’s saddled with one of the worst, most overmixed scores I’ve heard in a while — the kind of music that signals a serious scene by getting loud and treacly.
De Niro has long become used to treating formula dreck with professionalism, and Fegley is getting lessons in same early; the kid’s fine. But “The War With Grandpa” is most noteworthy for the gap between the actors' sizable skill sets and the minimal lifting required of them here. It’s too inoffensive to be depressing but too inconsequential to be much good. The pro forma end-credit outtakes of the actors muffing their lines and cracking each other up serve as a reminder that a lot of movies are more fun to make than they are to watch.
THE WAR WITH GRANDPA
Directed by Tim Hill. Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on the book by Robert Kimmel Smith. Starring Robert De Niro, Oakes Fegley, Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken. At Boston-area theaters. 94 minutes. PG (rude humor, language, some thematic elements).