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Sunday
Feb212016

IN BOB WE TRUST: DEFENDING DE NIRO

As wave after wave of universally awful reviews for Dirty Grandpa emerged, one key theme ran through most of them – what the hell has happened to Robert De Niro? One school of thought says he’s losing his mind, agreeing to grace such dreck. Well, school’s out! SCREEN-SPACE engages in a dialogue with itself (a bit weird, but go with it) as to why Robert De Niro is still Hollywood’s ace-in-the-hole…

All this hatin’ is because of Rocky & Bullwinkle, isn’t it?

True, the tide turned in 2000 when he signed on as ‘ Fearless Leader’ in Des McAnuff’s live action/animation mash-up of Jay Ward’s iconic ‘60s cartoon series. But consider that The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle was greenlit at a time when goofy big-screen riffs on old TV properties were booming; Brendan Fraser’s career spanned the idiotic hits George of The Jungle (1997) and Dudley Do-Right (1999), while Matthew Broderick fronted the inane blockbuster, Inspector Gadget (1999). A wildly imaginative, meta-rich Rocky & Bullwinkle seemed a no-brainer, especially considering the talent that was lining up to take Universal’s money (the budget – a whopping US$76million). The script was credited to one of America’s most respected playwrights, Kenneth Lonergan, an Oscar nominee for You Can Count On Me (2000), and hot off De Niro’s hit comedy Analyze This; the cast included then-bankable Rene Russo as Natasha, and the breakout star of TV’s Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, as Boris. The studio was so confident it had a hit, a mid-summer slot taking on the latest from Mel Gibson (Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot) and George Clooney (Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm) was booked. Yet press zeroed in on De Niro’s wildly eccentric villain as symbolic of a lot of bad decisions on the film’s road to flop-dom…

And rightly so, I reckon. Maybe a buffoonish Nazi was not the best idea in a kid’s movie...

Well, it is certainly a way out-there bad guy part, the likes of which we all loved when Christopher Lloyd did similar in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis’ landmark toon epic was clearly on everyone’s mind when TAoR&B was okayed). But within the context of the insane plotting and high pitch for which the entire film reached, De Niro’s leather-clad, thickly-accented – dare I say, cartoonish – nemesis seems about right.

Mmm…that’s a maybe. Regardless, he seems to have shrugged it off and ‘fearlessly’ taken on other ill-judged roles, like 2001’s 15 Minutes with Edward Burns or 2002’s Showtime opposite Eddie Murphy…

Yep, minor works that weren’t ready to go before the cameras; totally agree. But Robert De Niro has always lived by the acting creed, ‘Just keep working.’ In the 30 years between the Scorsese classic Raging Bull (1980) and the hit sequel Little Fockers (2010), he featured in an incredible 58 films. He took flak for some (Neil Jordan’s We’re No Angels, opposite Sean Penn; Tony Scott’s thriller, The Fan; Kenneth Branagh’s expensive dud Frankenstein), but it was an incredibly diverse period that also yielded The King of Comedy, Casino, The Mission, Midnight Run, Goodfellas, Awakenings, This Boy’s Life, his directorial debut A Bronx Tale, Heat, Cape Fear, Copland, Wag The Dog, Ronin and Jackie Brown. Not to mention memorable bit parts in Brazil, The Untouchables, Angel Heart, Mad Dog and Glory and Sleepers, great roles in little-seen indies like Jacknife, Guilty by Suspicion and Flawless and sweet ‘everyman’ leads in Falling in Love (opposite Meryl Streep) and Stanley and Iris (opposite Jane Fonda). Which of his peers from his true heyday, the American cinema of the 1970’s, can boast of career longevity like that?

I think it’s the reputation from that last truly classic film era that has proved to be a heavy burden for Bobby. Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets, both ’73; The Godfather, Part II, ’74; Taxi Driver and 1900, both ’76; The Deer Hunter, ’78 (pictured; below)…

An extraordinary period for studio films in general, and De Niro in particular; no doubt about it. But he had also dealt with the commercial bomb The Last Tycoon in 1976 and critical dud New York New York in 1977; both were ambitious visions that didn’t quite gel, like several of the films that have come up short in his long career. Studios just aren’t making those ambitious, actor-friendly American films anymore. And if they did, who would match a young De Niro’s intensity? Di Caprio? Damon? I don’t think so…

And those ‘peers’ from 70’s…?

Sadly, the likes of McQueen, Newman, Heston, Bronson have all departed us. Big box office draws of the day like James Caan and Burt Reynolds maintain a Hollywood profile but aren’t ‘acting’ very much; Robert Redford has had a resurgence of late (All is Lost; Walk in The Woods), but favours behind-the-scenes mentoring and Sundance-aligned endeavours ahead of acting gigs; Michael Caine plays the occasional lead (Youth, 2015, opposite another ‘70s figure in Harvey Keitel) but prefers high-paying support slots. Hackman, Connery and Nicholson have all settled into retirement. Dustin Hoffman works steadily; Travolta and Duvall, too, though less so. Clint Eastwood has redefined his A-list status, happier behind the camera. Of the actresses, Meryl Streep is the only bankable ‘70s actress still at the top of her game; perhaps Diane Keaton, too, but not in lead parts. Only De Niro and his one true equal, Al Pacino, are regularly before the cameras.

Pacino!?! What’s he done lately?

Whereas De Niro will happily take a few days work for a good cheque or slip into a memorable support role, Pacino has focussed on offbeat ‘arty’ projects that no one sees but which still challenge his talent. Since banking the studio dollars opposite Adam Sandler in 2011’s Jack and Jill, he’s made films with Alan Arkin and Christopher Walken (Stand Up Guys, 2012), director Barry Levinson (The Humbling, 2014) and indie sector auteur David Gordon Green (Manglehorn, 2014). Just this year, he scored a Golden Globe nomination for Dan Fogelman’s terrific character piece, Danny Collins. Not to mention the TV roles, in Angels in America and playing Phil Spector and Dr Kervorkian…

Ironic then that perhaps the worst movie either of them has made, they played opposite each other!

Yeah, I’ll yield on that one. Righteous Kill was terrible.

So why make it! Surely some of the stuff that De Niro attaches to can’t be the best scripts that his agents are fielding? It’s Robert f***ing De Niro, for goodness sake!

There you go, still judging him above other actors on his reputation alone! Yes, much of the criticism levelled at De Niro when he turns up in genre B-pics like Godsend (2004), Hide and Seek (2005), Killer Elite (2011) or Red Lights (2012), or questionable comedies like the Focker sequels and Dirty Grandpa, largely consists of “Why would ‘The Greatest Living Actor’ take such a role?” But very few detractors will mention that, between the occasionally minor works or critical misfires, this 72 year-old (!!) is still scoring Oscar nominations (most recently for David O’Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook); is bankable enough to ensure quality mature-age films like Everybody’s Fine (2009), Last Vegas, The Family and Grudge Match (all 2013) are getting made and seen; and, is the go-to guy when today’s hot young leads (Bradley Cooper in Limitless, 2011; Anne Hathaway in The Intern, 2015; Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, 2015; Zac Efron in Dirty Grandpa, 2016) need the on-screen boost an industry pro like De Niro provides.

He could disprove all the naysayers who cry that he’s only in it for the money by committing to more directing gigs, surely?

I agree. A Bronx Tale was a beautifully handled film. His only other feature, The Good Shepherd, was a flop despite solid reviews and a starry cast. He did step behind the camera last year, for the short film Ellis, about the role of the American migrant in the country’s history and the entry point for many in the middle of New York harbour. And, you’re right, his heart was clearly in it.

So we should trust that, even during ‘that scene’ in Dirty Grandpa with the porn and lube, he knows exactly what he’s doing, has nothing to prove anymore and perhaps throwing shade his way is not the coolest thing…

No, it’s not, thank you. Ok, next - Nicholas Cage. 

What the…! 

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