Did Comedy Ruin Robert De Niro?

Exhibit A: ‘Dirty Grandpa’
Did Comedy Ruin Robert De Niro?

Robert De Niro’s place amongst the greatest actors in film history is without question. It’s a career built on banger after banger, from Heat to The Deer Hunter to the many Martin Scorsese gems he stars in with Joe Pesci. Now De Niro’s back with About My Father (aka You People, But With Italians)in which he plays a curmudgeonly old man who spends a weekend with his son’s fiancee’s wealthy family and… murders their pet for a pasta dinner?

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This is just the latest depressing, bottom-of-the-barrel comedy to feature the Oscar-winning star of Raging Bull. In 2020, we got The War with Grandpa, a “comedy for the whole family” about a small boy who repeatedly tries to brutalize his grandfather with hilariously homicidal pranks. Think Home Alone, if Kevin McCallister tortured an elderly relative instead of burglars.

Which made me wonder: Did comedy ruin Robert De Niro? 

De Niro’s had some career-high points in the past 20 years, but things have noticeably taken a creative downturn since he started aggressively making comedies. His first significant foray into comedy was Harold Ramis’ Analyze This back in 1999. Sure, he’d previously appeared in dark satires like The King of Comedy and Wag the Dog and a couple of crime comedies like Midnight Run and We’re No Angels. But Analyze This felt different. It was a straight-up studio comedy featuring the antics of Billy Crystal, and it was a monster hit, essentially turning De Niro into a comedy star overnight.

His next major comedic turn, Meet the Parents, was also a box office smash. Like with Analyze This, De Niro was essentially the movie’s straight man, again utilizing his iconic tough guy persona in order to tee up the anxious humor of his beta male co-star Ben Stiller.

But solidifying De Niro as a comedic lead arguably became a self-defeating trend, nullifying what made it funny to begin with. The humor of those films worked precisely because audiences didn’t associate De Niro with comedy. But the novelty of seeing the guy from Goodfellas questioning whether or not his nipples could be milked wore thinner and thinner as De Niro continued to crank out big-budget comedies that steadily declined in quality. The same year as Meet the Parents, he took part in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Meanwhile, the Fockers sequels were tiring, Analyze This was a dud and the less said about Showtime with Eddie Murphy, the better.

The Intern with Anne Hathaway was bad enough, but things got genuinely dire when De Niro starred in 2016’s Dirty Grandpa with Zac Efron. A movie that feels like someone found a magic lamp and used one of their three wishes to create a cross between Casino and one of those straight-to-video American Pie sequels. If you haven’t seen it, the title isn’t some deep metaphor; it’s literally about a dirty grandpa, a widower, who goes to spring break and tries to fuck Aubrey Plaza. Hilarity does not ensue. 

In the past decade, De Niro has also, weirdly, showed up in dramas where he plays a comedian, despite the fact that he never seemed like an innately funny guy. In The Comedian, he plays the fictional insult comic Jackie Burke but lacks all comedic credibility. Not helping matters, the production reportedly hired roast comic Jeff Ross to punch up the jokes, but De Niro rejected these additions to the script because the humor was “not his cup of tea.” Instead, they hired a gentler, less “provocative” writer to pen the routines for De Niro’s character who, again, was supposed to be a Don Rickles-esque insult comic.

Then there was his role in Joker, which tapped De Niro to portray a late-night talk show host. This works as a meta-nod to the film’s primary ripoffs influences, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but makes no logical sense since De Niro, again, exudes none of the natural comedic charisma such a job would typically necessitate.

In De Niro’s defense, crappy comedies are still probably a lot more fun to make than even the most acclaimed gritty mob epics. But it’s still hard to see De Niro the same way, having witnessed him tell the star of High School Musical that he’s so horny, he wants to fuck a horse and then drink its blood.

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter (if it still exists by the time you’re reading this).

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