Sunday 19 November 2017

So who told Robert De Niro he was funny?

How the most serious actor of his generation turned himself into a joke - one lowbrow punchline at a time.

Robert De Niro with Zac Efron in Dirty Grandpa;
Robert De Niro with Zac Efron in Dirty Grandpa;
Robert De Niro with Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents
De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
De Niro with Charles Grodin in Midnight Run.

Robbie Collin

Who told Robert De Niro he was funny? Many of us have asked ourselves that question at some point over the past 10-or-so years, but this week, as his latest film, Dirty Grandpa arrived in Irish cinemas, the matter took on a new urgency.

In Dirty Grandpa, the two-time Oscar-winner plays a widower who visits Florida with his grandson in the hopes of bringing his 15-year celibate streak to a wild halt. On the poster he's shirtless, and holding his co-star Zac Efron above his head in a dead lift. In the trailer, his character, whose name is Dick, flexes, swears, jokes about bestiality, and calls his grandson's pink Mini a "giant labia".

In one sense, De Niro's Dirty Grandpa is merely the latest version of the senex amans, or "ancient lover": a comic archetype that's been around since the days of early Roman theatre. But in another sense - well, it just looks horrendous, doesn't it?

It's hard to picture anyone wanting to see the 72-year-old star of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull reduced to shouting "party till you're pregnant" at 20-something women in a crowded nightclub for laughs.

Yet for more than a decade, this once most serious of actors has made broad and lowbrow comedies his home turf.

The Intern, Grudge Match, Last Vegas, The Family, The Big Wedding, two supplementary doses of Fockers (Meet The and Little), New Year's Eve, Machete, Showtime, Analyse That and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, packed in since 2000. That is a hell of a comic run.

The actor's apparent lack of quality control has itself become a running joke. At the 2014 White House Correspondents' Dinner, at which De Niro was present, the host Joel McHale quipped: "I don't do a De Niro impression, but I do an impression of Robert De Niro's agent," before pretending to pick up a ringing telephone and immediately shouting "He'll do it!"

De Niro is not the only New Hollywood icon now widely thought to be squandering his talent. Another much-lamented case is Al Pacino.

But at least Pacino's recent stinkers keep you on your toes - he was miscast in Danny Collins, floundering in Manglehorn, and sleepwalked through 88 Minutes, so who knows how the next one will go wrong? De Niro's, on the other hand, are clumpingly predictable: most either spoof '70s screen persona or shift it to an unexpected setting. Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, swaggering into a red-lit bar to the opening chords of 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'?

That's unspeakably cool. But the same actor, 43 years later, doing a similar walk through a Daytona Beach club to Macklemore's 'Downtown'? That's unspeakable.

It's rare, thank goodness, for a De Niro comedy to go quite as far as Rocky and Bullwinkle did, with its excruciating send-up of the "Are you talking to me?" monologue from Taxi Driver. But they're all built on an assumption that viewers will be steeped in, or at least dimly aware of, De Niro lore - his genius for playing violent, streetwise, wayward souls, and bringing plausibility and depth to hair-trigger maniacs.

So if you could put a De Niro-brand sociopath in a film about a nervous young man trying to win over his prospective father-in-law, for example? Well, imagine the hilarity that would ensue.

That was the thinking behind Meet the Parents, the 2000 film that was largely responsible for the De Niro comedy boom. It's a lot better than you probably remember: De Niro's Jack Byrnes, a retired CIA officer and fiercely protective father, is a brilliant comic creation, outrageous but just recognisable enough for Ben Stiller's anxiety to connect.

Take the scene in which Jack and Stiller's Greg Focker listen to 'Puff, The Magic Dragon'. Hearing De Niro humming along to Peter, Paul and Mary is funny to start with. Then Greg attempts to make small talk by bringing up the song's supposed drug references - and De Niro's increasingly appalled expression and Stiller's quiet dismay turn it into a glorious cringe-comedy vignette.

De Niro has a limited number of comedy moves, but Meet the Parents makes expert use of his best three: overt friendliness with an undertow of threat, an expression you might call "simmering volcano", and the wildly disproportionate outburst ("I will bring you down, baby! I will bring you down to Chinatown!").

But it also gets a few cheap laughs by undercutting De Niro's standing as a respectable actor - the scene in which a lorry's spinning tyres spray him with septic tank waste, for instance - and this is where the problems start to creep in.

That particular comic tactic yields diminishing returns, not least because De Niro's standing droops a little every time you do it. So that's why the scripts of Meet the Parents' two awful sequels, Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers, had to go to much greater extremes to achieve the same effect. (The scene from Meet the Fockers in which the actor wears a strap-on breast-feeding device sums up Bad De Niro Comedy in a single blood-curdling image.) But that didn't stop all three Meet the Parents films from being wildly successful.

The first one, about which Universal were quietly concerned (its $55m budget, pushed up in part by De Niro's fee, was expensive for a comedy) was covered in 11 days, and it went on to make $330m worldwide.

De Niro began the 21st century as Hollywood's most bankable comic star. That De Niro's comic style is often both broad and limited can't be helped: the films that work tend to be the ones that make a virtue of it.

A year before Meet the Parents came Analyse This, in which De Niro played a mob boss in psychotherapy, and the role didn't require much more than judicious deployment of the same three moves above.

The film's no masterpiece, but it works because Billy Crystal's nebbishy psychiatrist doodles wittily around De Niro's breeze-block blow-ups, providing the much-needed comic intricacy that's missing from many of the films that would follow.

Yet De Niro's best comedy is the one which turned that dynamic on his head - and positioned him, improbably, as the straight man.

"You know why you have an ulcer?" Charles Grodin's wily mob accountant tells De Niro's bail agent Jack Walsh in Midnight Run. "Because you have two forms of expression: silence and rage."

Like many of that film's best lines, it's a Grodin improvisation - but it draws a circle around the soul of De Niro's enormous comic appeal.

Though silence and rage are Jack's two main ways of engaging with the world, we know there's a rounded, even lovable, human being underneath. When we first meet Jack, he's slinking through an inner-city slum in a black leather jacket, and we could easily be in a serious De Niro film.

In the late '80s, De Niro was established as a great screen actor and Oscar-winning talent, but his films had never been licences to print money. (The Untouchables, released the previous year, had been his biggest hit to date, but that show's newly minted star was Kevin Costner.)

But this eccentric odd-couple road-movie buddy-comedy hybrid changed that. De Niro's streetwise spikiness and Grodin's deadpan psych-outs turned out to be a perfect comic mismatch, and the film made De Niro a commercial star.

Tellingly, even though he's technically playing the straight man, De Niro doesn't have to be outrageous to be funny. In the scene in which he mockingly compliments the FBI agents on their sunglasses - "Are they government-issued, or do all you guys go, like, to the same store to get them?" - his fake sincerity is hilarious because it's almost indiscernible from the real thing.

Back in 1983, his performance as the unhinged aspiring stand-up Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy had showed De Niro understood the rhythms of comedy well enough to make it supremely unsettling.

That film's climactic monologue wavers hair-raisingly between derangement and real comic proficiency, and is all the scarier for it. In Midnight Run, all he had to do was use those powers for good.

That low-key dazzle still surfaces in his work with David O Russell: in Joy, for instance, his character's description of his ex-wife as "like a gas leak: we don't see you, we don't smell you, but you're killing us all silently" is delivered with the perfect mix of exasperation and spite.

Through the lean times, moments like that are worth holding on to, as well as the memory that it was comedy that united De Niro with the audience he always deserved. Who told Robert De Niro he was funny? We did - and despite much recent evidence to the contrary, we were right. ©The Daily Telegraph

* Dirty Grandpa is out now

Irish Independent

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