The only type of comedy worse than an unfunny one is a mean-spirited one. The War with Grandpa is so mean that I was frequently taken out of the film to feel bad for the characters.
Based on Robert Kimmel Smith’s children’s novel of the same name, The War with Grandpa features a boy, Peter (Oakes Fegley), and his widowed grandfather, Ed (Robert De Niro), going toe-to-toe through a series of pranks to claim a bedroom after Peter’s parents (Uma Thurman, Rob Riggle) relocate their son to the attic when Ed moves in. It’s a family-friendly premise that’s supposed to emulate the hijinks of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, and perhaps to an extent the Home Alone series, but The War with Grandpa doesn’t even come close to the comparable charm of those two franchises. It’s a heartless movie that lacks sympathy towards its combating characters and their potentially entertaining age dynamic. Home Alone was ruthless with its pranks, but at least our pint-sized hero and the criminals were well defined.
A scene early on really soured me. Ed finishes explaining his marble collection to Peter’s younger sister Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon). It’s a small collection, but it represents all of the houses Ed has built throughout his life. In every house, he would find, at least, one marble in the foundation. A schmaltzy story, sure, but I was sincerely affected when bratty Peter designs a prank targeted at the marbles that goes off the rails, resulting in Ed watching most of his collection roll down a floor vent and Peter chalking up a point for himself. Ed is sad, Peter assumes everything went to plan, and Jennifer makes a “Grandpa lost his marbles” joke to her oblivious parents.
What’s funny about this? I smirked at Jennifer’s unintentional wordplay, but only because there was so much set-up leading up to such a lame Dad-joke-quality pun. This prank is only the tip of the iceberg as Ed and Peter continue to take petty swings at each other. Ed is egged on by his senior buddies Jerry and Danny (Christopher Walker, Cheech Marin), while Peter gets inspiration from his classmates. The friends have nothing witty to say as the actors slug through creaky dialogue that, I suppose, sounds age-appropriate to screenwriting team Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (Get Smart, Epic).
Director Tim Hill (Max Keeble’s Big Move, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run) is interested in slapstick and unexpected reactions, but it’s not that funny considering how helpless, and sometimes pathetic, these characters are. Repetitive jokes featuring Thurman having awkward run-ins with a police officer and Riggle catching glimpses of Ed’s penis are prime examples of how clueless Tim Hill is.
After the shenanigans, The War with Grandpa wants to turn around and preach a message about being anti-war. During the finale, Peter and Ed are practically a beat away from breaking out into a duet of Edwin Starr’s “War”. Luckily, they don’t….because the film is saving that energy for the credits as musician Laura Marano (who plays Peter’s older sister) belts out an original song called “Point of War” as bloopers play and cast members dance around her. Then, it hit me: the film did have sympathy. It’s just revealed at the end when the audience feels sorry for everyone involved with this embarrassing movie.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie