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‘The War with Grandpa’ Review: Harmless Fun


Oakes Fegley and Robert De Niro in The War with Grandpa
Photo Credit: 101 Studios and Brookdale Studios

On paper, The War with Grandpa seems like a wild dream born of months of COVID-induced home isolation. Adapted from the book of the same name by Robert Kimmel Smith, it lists Guy Fieri (of Flavortown) as an executive producer and stars Robert De Niro as the titular grandpa, Ed, who is coaxed by his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) to move in with her family. However, Ed’s arrival forces his grandson Peter (Oakes Fegley) to move into the attic, so, Peter declares war on Ed in hopes of getting his room back and an escalating prank war ensues. It’s a perfect set up for a series of silly but slight kids’ movie shenanigans and that’s exactly what director Tim Hill delivers—for better or worse.

Like the Home Alone films before it, the biggest draw of The War with Grandpa is the slapstick comedy. It starts pretty much immediately, as Ed’s difficulty in navigating a self-checkout machine quickly escalates into an army of seniors attacking a grocery store employee. De Niro isn’t afraid to look ridiculous and neither is the rest of the cast. Whether it’s Thurman doing a spit take with hot sauce-filled coffee or Sally’s husband Arthur (Rob Riggle) reacting to a half-naked Ed dangling from a gutter, editors Craig Herring and Peter S. Elliot rarely let the audience breathe between gags and jokes mostly work even if they often veer into lowbrow cheapness. That said, not every set piece feels like it’s talking down to the audience. The climactic sequence, which takes place at an unseasonal Christmas-themed birthday party for Ed’s granddaughter Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon), is a series of Rube Goldberg-esque escalations that’s genuinely clever in its complexity.

Fun as many of the film’s set pieces are, though, perhaps the biggest reason The War with Grandpa gets any laughs at all is because of how good the cast is. Every few minutes, a big name like Christopher Walken and Cheech Marin as Ed’s friends or Jane Seymour as Ed’s potential love interest appears, and each actor is just as committed to the film’s silly tone as the last. That silliness reaches its apex in a dodgeball battle between Ed and the aforementioned trio and Peter and his three friends at a trampoline park. It’s, of course, ridiculous to pretend a bunch of seniors would have a chance against a group of spry tweens, but Hill’s film is so heightened throughout, it’s pure, silly kids’ movie fun to watch Marin get beaned in the head or Seymour’s stunt double do a flip. Yeah, it’s totally unrealistic, but kids are going to be laughing too hard to care and only the most uptight parents would take this seriously enough to roll their eyes.

Still, light and carefree as the film’s tone may be, by favoring comedy over emotional beats, The War with Grandpa leaves promising territory unexplored. While side plots like the origins of Jennifer’s year-round Christmas obsession or Arthur’s unhappiness with his job are brought up repeatedly, they’re never really addressed. It’s possible the filmmakers leave that ground untouched in hopes of a sequel (Smith’s book is a 2-book series after all), but that excuse doesn’t hold when it comes to the way writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember’s script refuses to dig into the emotional stakes driving the film.

When we first meet Ed, he’s not just an old curmudgeon, he’s a retiree grieving the loss of his wife. Though we don’t know how long he’s been grieving, we do know how depressed he is by the way he stares pensively out the window as he listens to old records or refuses to engage with either Jennifer and his friends at the film’s beginning. And while Ed occasionally veers into the aggressive, adversarial character De Niro played in the Meet the Parents films, the character’s ultimate softness feels like the antithesis of that persona. Whether he’s gamely playing along with whatever Jennifer wants him to do or confessing to Sally how much he regrets causing a two-year rift between them, De Niro makes the most of every emotional beat Ed gets.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the cast is as deft. While Thurman is almost embarrassingly big throughout because her character exists almost exclusively as comic relief, it’s the younger cast most hurt by the emphasis on comedy. While De Niro’s rapport with Gagnon is enough to sell their connection, by not giving a deeper reason for Peter’s antagonism toward his grandfather other than simply not wanting to lose his room, the character just seems like a brat. How badly have Sally and Arthur parented this kid that he not only doesn’t for a second consider his grandfather’s feelings even after Ed tries to keep the war from happening in the first place, but doesn’t bat an eye at destroying the mementos of Ed’s life’s work?

Admittedly, the kids watching won’t see Peter’s sociopathy for what it is and, really, most parents probably won’t either because The War with Grandpa is ultimately so benign. It’s a kids’ movie and that’s totally fine. It’s got fun slapstick set pieces and an almost absurdly good cast who looks like they’re having an absolute blast in every scene. Sure, it’s not going to blow anyone’s mind, but it’s fun family entertainment and, really, in 2020, isn’t it enough to just have some meaningless fun?

The War with Grandpa is now playing in select theaters.


Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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