It can be exceptionally weird when the setup for a movie mimics a portion of your own life, especially a relatively recent portion. With luck when watching such a movie, it’s a comedy or some sort of lighthearted affair, not a grim drama, or worse, a horror movie. Directed by Tim Hill, with a screenplay from Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember, “The War with Grandpa” features a an aging widower moving into his daughter’s house and extending that nuclear family. Here is where I note that in June, my father-in-law, a widower, moved in with us and quite crucially absolutely, nothing else about this film remotely resembles my life.
Thank goodness for this last because the movie, which is based on a book by Robert Kimmel Smith, is about the son in the family, 12-year-old Peter (Oakes Fegley), starting a war with his grandfather, Ed (Robert De Niro), because Ed takes Peter’s room when Ed moves in. Ed wasn’t given a choice in this – it was the best option for him room-wise, with the other choice being the attic, which is where Peter ends up.
“The War with Grandpa” finds itself in a particularly interesting situation because it has to straddle the line between making Ed an adult who recognizes things are getting out of hand as well as an active participant in the war. If Ed’s not an adult who tries to end the situation peacefully, he’s a horrible human being; if Ed’s not a participant, Peter is cruel and/or there’s no movie in the first place.
Finding this balance for Ed is, without question, the best thing the movie has going for it. Ed takes the brunt of the abuse and does so with grace. He tries to end things, he rarely (if ever) goes beyond some pretty good pranks, and he continually helps the kid out despite being “at war” with him. Heck, Ed even explains to Peter, in general terms, the awfulness of war.
The back-and-forth attacks end up being incredibly funny with more than one laugh out-loud moment. It may all tilt too far to the absurd (not that the whole thing isn’t absurd in the first place) when Ed gets his senior citizen friends—who are played by no less than Christopher Walken, Jane Seymour, and Cheech Marin—involved, but it’s funny nonetheless.
Just about everywhere else, the movie doesn’t work.
There are moments here where it feels as though they filmed an early draft of the script. Peter’s dad, Arthur (Rob Riggle), is an unfulfilled architect who works at a large firm that helps design buildings that are huge boxes which house things like Walmarts and Kmarts. Much is made of his general dissatisfaction with this career. There is a scene at his office which exists solely to show his unhappiness. There is also a scene where Arthur tells Ed that he’s submitting a design in a contest to help with a library addition.
None of this goes anywhere. The contest is mentioned in that one scene and never again. The movie ends with no resolution whatsoever for Arthur. Without giving away the ending of the movie, there is a clear solution that could have been had and which would have taken something like 30 seconds to include, but there’s nothing there. It just stops.
Peter’s mom, Sally (Uma Thurman), fares slightly better, but not much. The family has two daughters, Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon) and Mia (Laura Marano). Sally spends the movie struggling with the elder, Mia, who is dating a boy, Russell (Colin Ford), Sally doesn’t like. We don’t know why Sally doesn’t like Russell, she just doesn’t. It feels as though the issue is related to some sort of stereotypical “don’t touch my daughter” sort of thing, but perhaps not. Despite Sally getting angry about Russell repeatedly (and Ed offering great advice on the topic), there is absolutely no exploration of Sally’s hate of this guy.
Everything about “The War with Grandpa” gives off the sense that it exists to make the prank war between Ed and Peter happen, that the rest of the material is filler so that the movie works out to be feature length, and that’s a shame. There is such great heart in the core relationship between grandfather and grandson, even when they’re fighting, that one can’t help but walk away thinking that it deserves a better movie surrounding it.
In closing, I will tell you that my son, a couple years younger than Peter, thought the movie was hysterical and that if he could get his hands on some of the materials Peter uses, I’d have some fears for my father-in-law. But, without the equipment, he’s probably just waiting for a sequel. I, however, am not.
photo credit: 101 Studios