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Robert De Niro’s less-than-stellar offerings

Hide and Seek, Righteous Kill, Little Fockers

De Niro x 3: Hide and Seek, Righteous Kill, and Little Fockers.
De Niro x 3: Hide and Seek, Righteous Kill, and Little Fockers.

It’s unclear at what point it became my sacred duty to collect the complete works of Robert De Niro on DVD, but the alignment of these three less-than-stellar middle period offerings — shelved side-by-side in achronological order at the Deseret Thrift Store in Chula Vista — furthered the quest, while at the same time retarding cinematic enrichment.

Hide and Seek (2005)

After the audience is led to believe that Allison (played by the first Mrs. Spielberg) has committed suicide, her grieving spouse David (Robert De Niro) decides the best way to comfort their daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) would be a hermetic life in near-total seclusion. (It worked for serial killer Joel Rifkin!) A move to the boonies and the isolation it imposes gives rise to Charlie, Emily’s imaginary (and deadly) playmate. It’s one of those movies where anybody that comes to the front door is either a suspect or a victim, making the “surprise” ending hopelessly telegraphed. The only genuine shock is that even as far back as 2005, filmmakers could rely on a Dolby-enhanced cat pouncing from out of a closet to startle an audience.

De Niro underplays the first hour to the point of somnambulism. What about this vacuous, predictable project appealed to him? One can understand Fanning, one of the finest child actors of any generation, wanting to work with the greatest actor of his generation, but what about the other way around? Fifteen years earlier, would anyone have believed that reviews could be positive simply because De Niro held his own against a child? It was the closest De Niro came to a Chucky sequel, and even that would have been preferable to this mean-drunk variation on Harvey. In this case, the patented, patronized Rupert Pupkin voice is misapplied: David is a jealousy-driven murderer, living life as a widowed father, and all he can muster are banal pleasantries delivered in a therapist’s nonjudgmental tone. Screenwriter Ari Schlossberg’s scanty dialogue doesn’t help, but where’s the old Bobby D. who could infuse even the most inarticulate screenplays (Stanley and Iris, Awakenings, The Fan) with layers of gist? Rather than a psychological drama, director John Polson developed the two sides of David’s schizophrenic character, downplaying one in favor of a humdrum surprise ending.

Some clever vidiot should have cut together a comparison reel of this film’s, “Come out, come out wherever you are” tagline with De Niro’s Max Cady variation from Cape Fear. When it came out, it stirred feelings of resentment over De Niro bamboozling Scorsese into directing an Amblin-produced remake. (Back when Vincent Minnelli and Howard Hawks spent their careers working in as many genres as possible, there was no such thing as a slasher picture.) But in comparison, David’s doldrums make Max Cady look like the actor performing at the peak of his powers. Here, a little of Cady’s jaggy charm might have helped.

Righteous Kill (2008)

So much meat and so little sizzle. As a thriller, it’s not competent enough to turn heads, and as an unintentional comedy, it’s not bad enough to be good. What’s truly amazing is how few sparks fly when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally get to spend quality time together in the same film. The actors, both in their sixties at the time of its release, starred as a pair of brotherly homicide cops in their fifties, with Denis Lenoir’s glaring cinematography rounding out the numbers by adding a couple of decades. When all fingers point to Turk (De Niro) as the serial killer, it’s up to Rooster (Pacino) to do whatever it takes to prove his buddy’s innocence. A serial killer on the force makes a terrific basis for a film (ask Larry Cohen), but in the hands of terminally impersonal director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Red Corner) it becomes a sub-average crime thriller with a surprise twist so out of left field that it almost justifies the viewer’s time.

The killer has a habit of leaving short poems at the scene of each crime. While De Niro can fight, he’d much rather recite his videotaped confession (it functions as the film’s narration) in a monotone that makes Travis Bickle’s diary entries sound like an auctioneer. With the exception of a few rousing exchanges, his character never comes to life. And why Pacino agreed to work with Avnet after their collaboration on the colossal misfire 88 Minutes was anybody’s guess.

Who knew that Brian DePalma would have such an everlasting impact on Pacino’s countenance? That leather jacket that he wore in Carlito’s Way has come to mean as much to the actor as the cowboy hat Jimmy Stewart wore in Anthony Mann’s westerns. And speaking of hair-wear, what’s that schmate perched atop Al’s noggin? His inferiority complex would be better served by a pair of lifts instead of a height-enhancing swatch of broadloom.

De Niro delivers the same crumpled expressions he’s been serving up for well over a decade. At the time, “America’s Finest Actor” hadn’t turned in a decent performance in a watchable movie since Jackie Brown. How much higher a tax bracket did he aspire to? After all the unmitigated garbage he’d insulted us with over the past too many years, he should have donated the salary of his next five features to Scorsese’s Film Foundation. And that’s that.

Avnet had a perfectly acceptable variation on Maniac Cop dropped in his lap and he botched it with every shot. His use of ‘Scope places character close-ups at opposite ends of the frame for elementary intercutting. His kitchen sink repertoire includes flash frames, split screen shots, blinding slivers of light, and that horrible music video staple where the film appears to have jammed in the gate. It’s seldom that I pay attention to an audio mix; so long as there’s something to look at, my ears can fall off for all I care. But the foley effects in Righteous Kill are only slightly less jarring than the old AMC “Silence Is Golden” trailer. It’s an example of a director becoming ensnared in his own A/V net.

Still, it was wonderful to see the return of an old favorite, absent from the screen for too many films. It was love at first sight with Brian Dennehy who made an everlasting impression as the sagacious bartender in Blake Edwards’ 10. He’s one of the last of the great character actors, and while he appears a bit gaunt here, his presence is still commanding. (Name another actor who made Sylvester Stallone look so good?) And Carla Gugino is sexy as De Niro’s kinky f-buddy on the force. (I do suggest that you look for the fleeting expression on De Niro’s face when he’s servicing Ms. Gugino from the behind. I almost spit blood. It’s worth seeing just for those five precious seconds of Bob’s Silly Putty look of carnal ecstasy.) As a pair of rival cops, John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg know how to hold their perfunctory cups of coffee. The biggest waste of talent is Melissa Leo, fresh off her outstanding performances in Frozen River. Although she doesn’t die, Avnet does away with her quicker than Richard Harris in Robin and Marian and Unforgiven combined. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson pops up as well, leaving one to assume a character taking six bullets was an in-joke tribute.

In retrospect, the clever twist ending spoiled many of the film’s unintentional guffaws. If the cue card narration resembles a comatose Bob Hope rather than De Niro, there was a reason for it. Damn! Goddamn! Even a full face/right profile split screen of one of the actors is eventually justified. Then again, given the overall lack of enthusiasm afforded the production, I’m guessing it was a happy accident.

Little Fockers (2010)

A major Christmas release that, in the spirit of the season, and in less than 10 minutes, detailed a thorough lexicography of bodily function jokes, kicked off a limp running gag about erectile dysfunction, and saw Jessica Alba administering an enema nozzle. Happy holidays from your friends at Universal and Paramount Pictures! (Yes, it took two studios to spit this out.)

Ten years, one sequel, and a worldwide box office take of $800 million later finds tyrannical patriarch Jack Byrnes (De Niro) once again squaring off with his milquetoast son-in-law Greg Focker (Ben Stiller). The two families plan on meeting in Chicago to celebrate the fifth birthday of Greg’s children, or as grandma Roz calls them, “the two twins.” (As opposed to three twins?) The lovely and talentless Ms. Alba joins the franchise as a drug rep eager to have the cash-strapped Jack speak at a convention advertising a new erectile dysfunction pill that‘s safe for heart patients. The comedic highpoint arrives when Greg has to take the situation in hand and inject adrenaline into Jack’s non-raging penis. And how’s this for a comedic topper? Just as Greg is pricking his father-in-law, one of the title characters walks in and punctuates the festivities with an adorable Macaulay Culkin-esque scream.

How did De Niro make the leap from “Greatest Actor of His Generation” to exchanging flaccid wisecracks with Ben Stiller? The answer is easy: threequel money. That’s what brought them all back — Barbra Streisand, Owen Wilson, Blythe Danner, Dustin Hoffman — and only the latter had the guts to sound off against the weak script. Hoffman balked at reprising his role as Bernie Focker, but was later persuaded by the Universal brass to appear in six scenes. Ironically, Hoffman was also bent out of shape over a change in “directors” — Jay Roach was replaced by Paul Weitz, the brain behind Down to Earth and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. That’s like filling a Slurpee cup with antifreeze instead of bleach.

If the Fockers franchise came equipped with a pair of incisors, it would have nipped away at the most obvious paradox of all. Forget about his future son-in-law being a male nurse and having the first name “Gaylord”; there is no way in hell that a narrow-minded, arch-Republican like Jack Byrnes would allow his precious daughter to marry a Jew. This time, the filmmakers at least address the issue by slapping a yarmulke on Jack’s skull and proclaiming him 1/23rd Jewish.

Again I ask, how much money do these guys need? It’s bad enough to embarrass yourself, but did De Niro have to drag his old buddy Harvey Keitel down with him? Scorsese should have put ‘em both in the ring and given ‘em both a beatin’, but rumor had it he was too busy considering whether or not to whore out by appearing in a sequel to Shark Tale to help ease the pain of his alimony bills.

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De Niro x 3: Hide and Seek, Righteous Kill, and Little Fockers.
De Niro x 3: Hide and Seek, Righteous Kill, and Little Fockers.

It’s unclear at what point it became my sacred duty to collect the complete works of Robert De Niro on DVD, but the alignment of these three less-than-stellar middle period offerings — shelved side-by-side in achronological order at the Deseret Thrift Store in Chula Vista — furthered the quest, while at the same time retarding cinematic enrichment.

Hide and Seek (2005)

After the audience is led to believe that Allison (played by the first Mrs. Spielberg) has committed suicide, her grieving spouse David (Robert De Niro) decides the best way to comfort their daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) would be a hermetic life in near-total seclusion. (It worked for serial killer Joel Rifkin!) A move to the boonies and the isolation it imposes gives rise to Charlie, Emily’s imaginary (and deadly) playmate. It’s one of those movies where anybody that comes to the front door is either a suspect or a victim, making the “surprise” ending hopelessly telegraphed. The only genuine shock is that even as far back as 2005, filmmakers could rely on a Dolby-enhanced cat pouncing from out of a closet to startle an audience.

De Niro underplays the first hour to the point of somnambulism. What about this vacuous, predictable project appealed to him? One can understand Fanning, one of the finest child actors of any generation, wanting to work with the greatest actor of his generation, but what about the other way around? Fifteen years earlier, would anyone have believed that reviews could be positive simply because De Niro held his own against a child? It was the closest De Niro came to a Chucky sequel, and even that would have been preferable to this mean-drunk variation on Harvey. In this case, the patented, patronized Rupert Pupkin voice is misapplied: David is a jealousy-driven murderer, living life as a widowed father, and all he can muster are banal pleasantries delivered in a therapist’s nonjudgmental tone. Screenwriter Ari Schlossberg’s scanty dialogue doesn’t help, but where’s the old Bobby D. who could infuse even the most inarticulate screenplays (Stanley and Iris, Awakenings, The Fan) with layers of gist? Rather than a psychological drama, director John Polson developed the two sides of David’s schizophrenic character, downplaying one in favor of a humdrum surprise ending.

Some clever vidiot should have cut together a comparison reel of this film’s, “Come out, come out wherever you are” tagline with De Niro’s Max Cady variation from Cape Fear. When it came out, it stirred feelings of resentment over De Niro bamboozling Scorsese into directing an Amblin-produced remake. (Back when Vincent Minnelli and Howard Hawks spent their careers working in as many genres as possible, there was no such thing as a slasher picture.) But in comparison, David’s doldrums make Max Cady look like the actor performing at the peak of his powers. Here, a little of Cady’s jaggy charm might have helped.

Righteous Kill (2008)

So much meat and so little sizzle. As a thriller, it’s not competent enough to turn heads, and as an unintentional comedy, it’s not bad enough to be good. What’s truly amazing is how few sparks fly when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally get to spend quality time together in the same film. The actors, both in their sixties at the time of its release, starred as a pair of brotherly homicide cops in their fifties, with Denis Lenoir’s glaring cinematography rounding out the numbers by adding a couple of decades. When all fingers point to Turk (De Niro) as the serial killer, it’s up to Rooster (Pacino) to do whatever it takes to prove his buddy’s innocence. A serial killer on the force makes a terrific basis for a film (ask Larry Cohen), but in the hands of terminally impersonal director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Red Corner) it becomes a sub-average crime thriller with a surprise twist so out of left field that it almost justifies the viewer’s time.

The killer has a habit of leaving short poems at the scene of each crime. While De Niro can fight, he’d much rather recite his videotaped confession (it functions as the film’s narration) in a monotone that makes Travis Bickle’s diary entries sound like an auctioneer. With the exception of a few rousing exchanges, his character never comes to life. And why Pacino agreed to work with Avnet after their collaboration on the colossal misfire 88 Minutes was anybody’s guess.

Who knew that Brian DePalma would have such an everlasting impact on Pacino’s countenance? That leather jacket that he wore in Carlito’s Way has come to mean as much to the actor as the cowboy hat Jimmy Stewart wore in Anthony Mann’s westerns. And speaking of hair-wear, what’s that schmate perched atop Al’s noggin? His inferiority complex would be better served by a pair of lifts instead of a height-enhancing swatch of broadloom.

De Niro delivers the same crumpled expressions he’s been serving up for well over a decade. At the time, “America’s Finest Actor” hadn’t turned in a decent performance in a watchable movie since Jackie Brown. How much higher a tax bracket did he aspire to? After all the unmitigated garbage he’d insulted us with over the past too many years, he should have donated the salary of his next five features to Scorsese’s Film Foundation. And that’s that.

Avnet had a perfectly acceptable variation on Maniac Cop dropped in his lap and he botched it with every shot. His use of ‘Scope places character close-ups at opposite ends of the frame for elementary intercutting. His kitchen sink repertoire includes flash frames, split screen shots, blinding slivers of light, and that horrible music video staple where the film appears to have jammed in the gate. It’s seldom that I pay attention to an audio mix; so long as there’s something to look at, my ears can fall off for all I care. But the foley effects in Righteous Kill are only slightly less jarring than the old AMC “Silence Is Golden” trailer. It’s an example of a director becoming ensnared in his own A/V net.

Still, it was wonderful to see the return of an old favorite, absent from the screen for too many films. It was love at first sight with Brian Dennehy who made an everlasting impression as the sagacious bartender in Blake Edwards’ 10. He’s one of the last of the great character actors, and while he appears a bit gaunt here, his presence is still commanding. (Name another actor who made Sylvester Stallone look so good?) And Carla Gugino is sexy as De Niro’s kinky f-buddy on the force. (I do suggest that you look for the fleeting expression on De Niro’s face when he’s servicing Ms. Gugino from the behind. I almost spit blood. It’s worth seeing just for those five precious seconds of Bob’s Silly Putty look of carnal ecstasy.) As a pair of rival cops, John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg know how to hold their perfunctory cups of coffee. The biggest waste of talent is Melissa Leo, fresh off her outstanding performances in Frozen River. Although she doesn’t die, Avnet does away with her quicker than Richard Harris in Robin and Marian and Unforgiven combined. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson pops up as well, leaving one to assume a character taking six bullets was an in-joke tribute.

In retrospect, the clever twist ending spoiled many of the film’s unintentional guffaws. If the cue card narration resembles a comatose Bob Hope rather than De Niro, there was a reason for it. Damn! Goddamn! Even a full face/right profile split screen of one of the actors is eventually justified. Then again, given the overall lack of enthusiasm afforded the production, I’m guessing it was a happy accident.

Little Fockers (2010)

A major Christmas release that, in the spirit of the season, and in less than 10 minutes, detailed a thorough lexicography of bodily function jokes, kicked off a limp running gag about erectile dysfunction, and saw Jessica Alba administering an enema nozzle. Happy holidays from your friends at Universal and Paramount Pictures! (Yes, it took two studios to spit this out.)

Ten years, one sequel, and a worldwide box office take of $800 million later finds tyrannical patriarch Jack Byrnes (De Niro) once again squaring off with his milquetoast son-in-law Greg Focker (Ben Stiller). The two families plan on meeting in Chicago to celebrate the fifth birthday of Greg’s children, or as grandma Roz calls them, “the two twins.” (As opposed to three twins?) The lovely and talentless Ms. Alba joins the franchise as a drug rep eager to have the cash-strapped Jack speak at a convention advertising a new erectile dysfunction pill that‘s safe for heart patients. The comedic highpoint arrives when Greg has to take the situation in hand and inject adrenaline into Jack’s non-raging penis. And how’s this for a comedic topper? Just as Greg is pricking his father-in-law, one of the title characters walks in and punctuates the festivities with an adorable Macaulay Culkin-esque scream.

How did De Niro make the leap from “Greatest Actor of His Generation” to exchanging flaccid wisecracks with Ben Stiller? The answer is easy: threequel money. That’s what brought them all back — Barbra Streisand, Owen Wilson, Blythe Danner, Dustin Hoffman — and only the latter had the guts to sound off against the weak script. Hoffman balked at reprising his role as Bernie Focker, but was later persuaded by the Universal brass to appear in six scenes. Ironically, Hoffman was also bent out of shape over a change in “directors” — Jay Roach was replaced by Paul Weitz, the brain behind Down to Earth and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. That’s like filling a Slurpee cup with antifreeze instead of bleach.

If the Fockers franchise came equipped with a pair of incisors, it would have nipped away at the most obvious paradox of all. Forget about his future son-in-law being a male nurse and having the first name “Gaylord”; there is no way in hell that a narrow-minded, arch-Republican like Jack Byrnes would allow his precious daughter to marry a Jew. This time, the filmmakers at least address the issue by slapping a yarmulke on Jack’s skull and proclaiming him 1/23rd Jewish.

Again I ask, how much money do these guys need? It’s bad enough to embarrass yourself, but did De Niro have to drag his old buddy Harvey Keitel down with him? Scorsese should have put ‘em both in the ring and given ‘em both a beatin’, but rumor had it he was too busy considering whether or not to whore out by appearing in a sequel to Shark Tale to help ease the pain of his alimony bills.

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