Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE WAR WITH GRANDPA
Rated PG, 94 minutes
Directed by: Tim Hill
There are no victors in THE WAR WITH GRANDPA, least of all the audience watching. The noisy pratfalls and attempts at heartrending poignancy in this story about major life changes for a tween and his grandfather had the potential to be funny and meaningful, but the film squanders both all too frequently. Even at a brief 94 minutes, this adaptation of Robert Kimmel Smith’s book feels like we’ve been thrown into the gulag.
12-year-old Peter (Oakes Fegley) has a lot of anxieties going into his first day of 6th grade. He and pals Steve (Isaac Kragten), Billy (Juliocesar Chavez) and Emma (T.J. McGibbon) are entering middle school and are eager to fit in. But two burly bullies are determined to quash their cool kid goals. Peter’s also dealing with an upheaval at home. Grandpa Ed (Robert De Niro) has recently moved in with the family after his wife died and an incident at the grocery store and a minor fender-bender occurred. Peter’s mom Sally (Uma Thurman) thought it best that they take her father in to prevent any further liabilities, which means jettisoning her son from his cozy room and rehoming him in their unfinished, practically uninhabitable attic. Needless to say, petulant Peter isn’t positive about this transition.
Peter consults with his friends and comes up with a plan: go to battle to win back his room. He begins by sending a letter to vacate the premises and quickly escalates things into pranks like messing around with Ed’s prized jar of marbles and rigging an RC car with a loud speaker blasting music in the middle of the night. Ed retaliates by doodling on his Air Jordans and removing screws from his furniture. Though Ed schools Peter on the futility of war, the pair agree to a few ground rules like no collateral damage and to keep it covert from the family. They do a terrible job at adhering to both rules as their bad deeds cause anguish for Sally and for Peter’s precocious younger sister Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon), who has an obsession with Christmas no one in this film ever questions.
The filmmakers are, of course, aware of the audacity fueling the situations presented, so there’s nothing mean-spirited that could be misconstrued as elder or child abuse. All the family-friendly violence is palatable, if not entirely predictable. However, they shy away from fully leaning into the sheer lunacy of the comedic set-ups. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember fail to deliver any memorable scenes, one-liners, or characters. It even recycles true-but-tired “old people can’t work technology” jokes from previous movies without a refreshed humorous zing. They lurch to tug at the audience’s heartstrings with sentiments demonstrated by the characters’ reversed coming-of-certain-age timelines. But these heartfelt ideas don’t land with much emotional impact. Plus, it features what I like to call “Chekhov’s tree” – because we know an early mention of a dead, towering tree is going to pay off in the climax.
Supporting characters are given more to do in the narrative – like Peter’s architect father Arthur (Rob Riggle), who’s struggling with his career, and Peter’s high-schooler sister Mia (Laura Marano), who’s having problems with her mom over her romantic relationship (which is a gender-swapped dad panic trope). However, the tertiary characters can be time-wastes rather than assets. Ed’s friends Jerry (Christopher Walken) and Danny (Cheech Marin) aren’t cleverly conceived, and are mere sounding boards for Ed. Ed’s potential paramour Diane (Jane Seymour) is barely one-dimensional. Each of Peter’s friends have minor roles that never lead to anything interesting. Steve’s continual humiliation by his older sister is the one time the filmmakers apply the comedy rule of threes, yet two other opportunities are wasted. Billy serves as a special counselor to Peter, but has no life of his own outside of the pet snake he owns. Emma’s voice of reason evaporates before act two when the screenwriters need her to take part in the “unnecessary war” she condemned less than twenty minutes prior. Much like Billy, or maybe worse, she doesn’t have any discernable interests.
In the cinematic universe of De Niro’s GRANDPA movies, at least Hill’s film is better than DIRTY GRANDPA. There are no revolting jokes about child rape in this. De Niro’s pants fall down a few times. Maybe that ought to be enough to entertain.
THE WAR WITH GRANDPA opens in theaters on October 9.