“The War with Grandpa” opens with a feisty encounter between Robert De Niro and a supermarket scanner. The supermarket has eliminated all its cashiers, and De Niro’s Ed, a senior citizen who wants to check out his cart full of groceries, can’t get the beeping, Siri-voiced scanner to cooperate, which leaves him testy in all the familiar yet agreeably scowling and disgruntled De Niro ways. He winds up walking out and stealing the groceries — not because he’s a thief, but because he’s so irritated (anyone who hates self-checkout, and the corporate greed it represents, will cheer him on). He then gets into a yogurt-hurling fight in the parking lot. So far, so De Niro-as-raging-codger proud.
But that’s about all you’re going to see of the 77-year-old De Niro’s charismatic volcanic side in “The War with Grandpa.” Moments later, Ed is in his messy living room, seated in his comfy old studded leather armchair, when Uma Thurman, as his daughter Sally, tells him that they’ve got to do something about his living situation. He’s not taking care of himself; she wants him to come and move in with her family. But he’s clinging to the house because it’s his way of staying close to the memory of his late wife blah blah blah, and that’s when the syrupy music comes pouring onto the soundtrack. We’re five minutes into the movie, and already it’s letting us know that it’s going to be a heartwarming piece of laminated Formica.
This is the descended-from-the-schlock-of-the-’80s aesthetic that’s a specialty of the film’s director, Tim Hill, who also made “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Max Keeble’s Big Move,” and “Hop.” Most of those films combine live action with CGI animal cutups, but just as important, Hill makes comedies that are like feature-length TV commercials for the human spirit. They knock you around and then soothe you. They’re movies that celebrate America as a great big family of couch-glued arrested children.
Moving into Sally’s home, Ed takes over the bedroom of her son, Peter (Oakes Fegley), who has just started the sixth grade. He’s making the transition to middle school and is having a hard time of it; he’s getting pushed around. But the kid is no pathetic wimp. He’s got friends, and he’s a sports fanatic, with a gold pair of Jordans. And when he has to move his bedroom into the attic, with its cluttered mustiness and its stray mice and birds, he’s annoyed…at grandpa. And so he starts a war.
But the combat is neither funny nor intense. “The War with Grandpa” is like “Home Alone” replayed as a tit-for-tat battle of logistical booby traps that never rises above the innocuous slapstick benign.
I didn’t like “Home Alone,” but you could at least say that it had the conviction of its own smiley-faced sadism. “The War for Grandpa” is a strange kind of dud, because it bends over backwards to establish that Peter and his grandpa really love each other. De Niro, after that opening scene, never gets angry again. Yet the show war must go on! Peter sends a remote-control car racing around Ed’s room blasting “Tootsee Roll” by 69 Boyz. He glues Ed’s marble jar to the desk, so that when Ed tries to lift it up it breaks and sends his valuable marble collection rolling into the heating vent (which is all, I kid you not, a setup for the line “Grandpa lost his marbles”). He makes Ed’s turntable speed up until the vinyl record on it flies off like a frisbee, and he swaps his shaving scream for foam sealant. I could go on, but you know the drill: Glue this, unscrew that, spy-drone this, until Ed is hanging by his fingertips from a drainpipe.
Since 90 straight minutes of this would be too much of a headache for anyone, the movie pads it out. Ed’s buddy, played by Christopher Walken, lives in an industrial-loft man-cave: pinball, pool table, electric racetrack, and a Onewheel that he rides around the endless space. Then Cheech Marin shows up as a third buddy, and suddenly it’s “Going in Style: The Remake as Sitcom Subplot.” Ed develops a flirtation with a supermarket worker (played by Jane Seymour — a lot of class acts in this potboiler), and she joins the team as they face down Peter and his school chums in a game of trampoline dodgeball.
There’s a totally gratuitous “Weekend at Bernie’s” funeral scene, and a last act that hinges on Peter’s little sister (Poppy Gagnon) worshipping Christmas — even though it’s not Christmas. So for her birthday in September, her mother throws her a Christmas birthday party by setting up a backyard playland with fake snow and decorations. And that’s all so that “The War with Grandpa” can turn into a fake Christmas movie — or, really, a fake of a fake, since the priming-the-audience-for-holiday-cheer movie that now comes out at the start of November is a staple of feel-good megaplex pablum. Of course, the war pranks keep coming, which makes “The War with Grandpa” a movie that fakes Christmas in order to trash Christmas. For some viewers (maybe too many), that’s Hollywood.