MOVIE BUFF-ET: De Niro defies classification in Joy, Dirty Grandpa and The Intern

Is Robert De Niro a movie star or a character actor or something in between? That is the question jostling in my mind after watching his three most recent films Joy, Dirty Grandpa, and The Intern.

Certainly, De Niro exudes the magnetism necessary for film stardom. There is danger behind the squint of his dark brown eyes, but it’s the type of danger that draws you in rather than repels you. Even in supporting parts, De Niro’s a man of consequence, one not to be dismissed.

His determined, street tough persona stands out from roles in such films as Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, just to name a few. De Niro specializes in playing morally compromised, even evil men, who battle no holds barred to dominate their space. He’s unquestionably radiates an alpha vibe. Even in smaller parts, there’s something about him that draws your eye. Some of his actions in those roles may be uncomfortable to watch, but a De Niro performance never seems uncomfortable.

While some of his performances may be a bit showy such as Al Capone, a role he gained a considerable amount of weight to play, in The Untouchables or Max Cady, a role he filed his teeth down for, in Cape Fear, De Niro injects certain believability or truth into the role.

De Niro inhabits his characters and provides each with distinct characteristics that makes them memorable. Sure Vito Corleone from The Godfather Part II, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, and Jimmy “The Gent” Conway from Goodfellas were all hardened, desperate characters, but there is no confusing the three characters.

De Niro’s tough guys are all different, unlike the numerous cowboys played by movie stars such as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. That’s no knock on the acting talents of Wayne and Eastwood or the entertainment value of their performances. It’s merely a distinction in the way De Niro chose to approach his career.


(R) 2hrs.

Photo: Merie Weismiller Wallace / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

De Niro imbues that same level of authenticity into a supporting performance for the David O. Russell film Joy. The Jennifer Lawrence vehicle is loosely based on shop-at-home sales mogul Joy Mangano, a divorced mother of two who built her fortune selling products, including the Miracle Mop, on the Home Shopping Network and QVC. It’s a virtually true Cinderella story.

In the film that flirts with a storybook shooting style, De Niro plays Joy’s father Rudy, who despite being divorced from her mother, moves into his estranged family’s basement after being dumped by his girlfriend.

In a conversation with her sister, Joy mentions that her father is a shell of himself when he’s not attached, and we definitely see this in De Niro’s performance. When De Niro begins to date a wealthy widow, played by Isabella Rossellini, his whole demeanor changes as he attempts assert control over his daughter’s life and business venture.

The role is relatively small but an important one as his domineering and coddling attitude presents a major hurdle Joy must clear on her road to business success.

Dirty Grandpa

(R) 1 hr. 42 min.

Photo: Bob Mahoney / Lionsgate

Dirty Grandpa is every bit as raunchy, audacious and sophomoric as the title and the film’s marketing would imply, maybe even more so.

De Niro plays a 70-year-old ex-military man whose wife just died after a long illness. At her funeral, he asks his uptight but upwardly mobile grandson (Zac Efron) to drive him to Florida to see an old army buddy.

The request comes just days before Efron is to marry his haughty fiancée. Both his father (Dermont Mulroney) and fiancé (Julianne Hough) are against it; however, Efron fondly remembers the time he spent with his grandpa as a kid.

Efron finally relents for old times sake, but little does he realize that De Niro is ready to get his party on after taking care of an ailing wife for 15 years. The two end up in Daytona Beach during the middle of spring break, where Efron runs into female friend who had a crush on him he was in college. The co-ed has a friend who is fond of much older men. From there, mayhem reigns.

Underneath the debauchery, the film does have heart, but its beat fails to rise above the noise. It would be disingenuous to say De Niro isn’t funny, but why he signed onto the movie is a mystery. Critics have labeled it his worst film. Maybe he just likes to work? Whatever his reason, the movie is better off with De Niro in it. If the movie has a redeeming quality, it’s De Niro.

The Intern

(PG-13), 2hrs, 1 min.

Photo: Francois Duhamel / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The Intern opened last fall and is already available on digital platforms and home video. De Niro co-stars with Anne Hathaway in the Nancy Meyers film workplace dramedy about how a 70-year-old intern Ben (De Niro) steps out of retirement and passes on his wisdom to his fellow employees at an online retail-clothing site.

Hathaway’s character Jules built the business from the ground up in less than two years, but her board of directors feels the mother with a stay-at-home husband is overwhelmed by the demands of the business and her home life. It suggests hiring a new CEO.

Playing against type, De Niro helps Hathaway sort through her issues in the charming film that might make decent date-night fodder. There’s not a hint of a romantic relationship between De Niro and his much younger co-star. De Niro’s character is older, wiser grandpa-type figure that Hathaway’s character can trust.

De Niro is just as charming as he is menacing in a bevy of other films.

From an overbearing father and a dirty old grandpa to the wisest and well-mannered gentleman you’d ever want to meet, De Niro excels in each role.

I guess it doesn’t really matter how De Niro is classified. He’s as fine a character actor as the big screen has seen in the last 40 years, and that has made him a bankable star into his 70s.

Mixed Bag of Movies Hits Theaters

An animated comedy-adventure, a Western, a disaster drama and a spoof make up the collection of films that open in local theaters Friday.

Kung Fu Panda 3 appears to be more of the same from Jack Black and company. If you found the first two films entertaining, this one might tickle your ribs, too.

Jane Got a Gun comes in a little under the radar for a film featuring Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor, but the Western about a woman seeking revenge for damages done by a gang of outlaws, looks promising.

Trailers for The Finest Hours have been running since last spring, leaving me with the impression I’ve already seen the movie, which stars Chris Pine and Casey Affleck as sailors caught in a perfect storm. Affleck and his crewmates need saving, while Pine and his crew must brave the brutal storm to mount a rescue attempt.

Fifty Shades of Black, starring Marlon Wayans, is a spoof of Fifty Shades Grey and other erotic thrillers of its ilk.

New In Local Theaters

  • Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG) 1 hr. 35 min
    (Fiesta Square, Razorback, Pinnacle Hills
    » Watch trailer
  • Jane Got a Gun (R) 1 hr. 37 min
    (Fiesta Square, Razorback, Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • The Finest Hours (PG-13) 1 hr. 56 min.
    (Razorback, Pinnacle Hills)
    » Watch trailer
  • Fifty Shades of Black (R) 1 hr. 32 min
    (Razorback, Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer

Classic Corner

It’s difficult to suggest just three Robert De Niro films when considering the actor’s filmography. Since his breakout year of 1973, De Niro has had at least one movie in theaters in all but three years (1975, 1982, 2003). Attempting to narrow a list down to his very best films is difficult because of the quality and quantity of choices. I won’t even attempt to do that, but here are three of his films more than worthy of revisiting or checking out for the first time.

Bang the Drum Slowly beat Mean Streets, De Niro’s first collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, into theaters by a couple of months in 1973. The two films catapulted the previously unknown bit performer on a trajectory that made him one of the most respected actors of his or any time.

While De Niro’s role as the street-tough “Johnny Boy” in Mean Streets falls more in line with the parts many associate with De Niro, I favor his performance as Major League catcher Bruce Pearson in John D. Hancock’s Bang the Drum Slowly. The film is centered on a struggling professional baseball team, but what it’s really about is friendship between Pearson and hot-shot pitcher Henry Wiggen, played by Michael Moriarty. It’s a touching, heartfelt drama yet unsentimental. That’s a rare combination in a Hollywood film.

In the 1983 Scorsese picture The King of Comedy, De Niro crafts a classic character in Rupert Pupkin that is impossible imagining any other actor portraying. Pupkin was a fanboy before the term had ever been coined, and he embodies the worst fear of any celebrity with a rabid fan base.

Pupkin is fanatically obsessed with talk-show host and comedian Jerry Langford, played masterfully by Jerry Lewis. When Langford denies Pupkin the big break the fan thinks he deserves, Pupkin responds by kidnapping Langford. The black comedy seems even more on the nose today than it did when first released.

Midnight Run features De Niro in a classic tough-guy role as bounty hunter Jack Walsh. Director Martin Brest (Beverley Hills Cop) pits De Niro against Charles Grodin as accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Marduckas, who has embezzled $15 million from Chicago mobsters, and The Duke is much more difficult to handle than Walsh ever dreamed.

The job sounds easy enough to Walsh; track down The Duke and bring him back to Los Angeles within five days. But little does Walsh know that Grodin’s character is one of the most hilariously annoying and neurotic characters ever committed to the screen. The action-comedy is a master class on how friction is the driving force of any buddy comedy.