Film, News & Commentary

The sad decline of Robert De Niro: from great actor to a walking punchline

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“Robert De Niro is one of the greatest comic actors of his generation” said nobody, ever. Perhaps those words could be extracted if Bob took inspiration from one of his many violent characters and had somebody strung up, ice-picked and blowtorched until the line was uttered. But volunteering it would be like favourably comparing the presence of Adam Sandler to the gravitas of Daniel Day Lewis: an epic faux pas, and something no reasonably minded, dinner table audience could possibly forgive.
Plenty of people have, however, cited De Niro as one of the finest actors of his generation, period. After all, this is the guy who channelled Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, forged cinema’s finest one-man-against-a-mirror argument in Taxi Driver, humanised with gut-busting bravado boxing brute Jack La Motta in Raging Bull and gave explosive scenery-chewing performances in too many films to name — The Deer Hunter, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Heat and The Untouchables for starters.

De Niro’s impact on New Hollywood and beyond is unquestioned and his legacy (to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson) is written in lightning. But the sad truth remains that nobody has called De Niro the greatest anything for a long time, other than perhaps in a very disparaging manner. Since the turn of the century the quality of the once great performer’s work has taken such a long and extraordinary dive southwards his career now very likely marks the steepest and saddest creative decline of any actor in Hollywood history.
De Niro is once again on our cinema screens trying to be funny, this time in writer/director Nancy Meyers’ The Intern. It is far from his worst; compared to the dreck now synonymous with his name this so-so comedy, a pleasant but forgettable fish out of water story, is actually one of his best films in years.
Given its premise — an old fuddy duddy gets a job as a “senior intern” at a fashion website, seemingly oblivious to the shame of having dropped to the lowest point on the corporate totem pole — the film’s release marks an appropriate time to ask: what the hell happened to Bob? In The Intern his character goes back to work. This is exactly what his fans have been waiting for the real guy to do for years.
Since the turn of the century De Niro has been prolific, acting in over 35 feature films. Just six are certified fresh, according to critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. His comprehensive array of duds range from tawdry genre titles (Hide and Seek, Godsend) to cringe-inducing comedies (Analyze That, Little Fockers pictured above, Showtime, Grudge Match). If a De Niro fan went into a coma in the late ’90s and woke up today they would be forgiven for exclaiming aloud the title of his 2008 film: What Just Happened?
How did this come to be? Why is one of the formerly great dramatic actors spending his sunset years denigrating his own legacy?
The thin end of the wedge arrived in 1999 with Analyze This. Until then De Niro had little experience in comedy, mastering funny weird but not funny ha-ha (exhibit A: Taxi Driver. Exhibit B: The King of Comedy). His two best overtly (and intentionally) comic performances came two years before in 1997, as a numb skull stoner in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and a political spin doctor in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog.
Perhaps those bongs in Tarantino’s crime caper went to his head. Analyze This bridged De Niro into the realm of self-parody and his career has never really recovered. His forays back into drama (in films such as Limitless and Silver Linings Playbook) occasionally offer glimpses of the gravitas we used to see so much of, but they are few and far between.
In Analyze This, DeNiro’s performance wasn’t great (watching him pretend to cry is particularly painful) but his casting made sense. He plays a mobster experiencing panic attacks who sparks a relationship with a flustered psychiatrist, played by Billy Crystal. In other words, he plays a send-up of his own roles.
That tendency towards self-parody got very embarrassing very quickly. His performance as a monocle-clad cartoon bad guy in 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle included an excruciatingly unfunny reprise of his “You talking to me?” scene. At the time it felt like a low point, but the worst was in the mail.
RIP Robert DeNiro, the once great dramatic actor. Cinema misses you dearly. We’ll try our best — though you don’t make it easy — to only remember the good old days.

11 responses to “The sad decline of Robert De Niro: from great actor to a walking punchline

  1. A little too judgmental for my taste, Luke. I’m reminded of what Olivier said in the twilight of his career, when people were making the same criticisms of him.
    “I’ve earned the right to damn well grab whatever I can in the time I’ve got left.”
    If DeNiro only does a Silver Linings Playbook once every five years for the rest of his career, that’s ok with me.

    1. Thank you Andrew. I was thinking DeNiro has made millions during his career and the fact that he hasn’t been age-displaced is a testament to his acting acumen. The Daily Reviewer would do well to remember that we all age. I absolutely loved The Intern and part of it was DeNiro’s warm, seasoned approach to life.

  2. I have often thought that perhaps he suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after being in one of the Towers during the 9/11 attacks in America. I think he was in a Tower, near the tower or he lost a close loved one. Because it was after that that he started to make really major errors of judgement in terms of roles, and acting..well not like Robert De Niro!

  3. Whilst the film is fictional, I would like to take issue with your line “seemingly oblivious to the shame of having dropped to the lowest point on the corporate totem pole”.
    As an older Australian desperately trying to gain fulltime employment, I can tell you I face deliberate and subtle discrimination every time I apply for a role.
    When I am able to gain a day here or a week there I can assure you the fact of knowing how different ones circumstances are now is never far from your mind.
    But it is not shame – to characterise it as such would be to give it a form that could significantly weaken ones resolve. You cannot focus on your past career or you will never move forward.
    I am sure the Robert De Niro character is aware of his change in circumstances, but he keeps moving forward, he keeps trying.
    Your comment just reinforces the prejudice towards older people trying to find work. We are not a hollowed out collective of our previous selves, nor are we ashamed.
    It is not shameful to try and start again, even if it is back at the bottom.

    1. With you all the way on that one, LB. I’m having to start from the bottom all over again and learning to live with it without grinding my teeth or mentally stewing over my fate. Age discrimination is both rampant and impossible to prove. There is a movie to be made out of this experience, maybe even one with Robert De Niro in it, but it needs to be darker and more truthful.

  4. This is the guy who did the Russian-roulette-in-the-Viet-Cong-prison-camp scene in the Deer Hunter. HE DOESN’T HAVE TO PROVE ANYTHING.

  5. De Niro has always been a walking parody. Even his so called ‘good’ performances have elicited smirks and giggles from me. One more arrogant italian and i think im gunna piss myself. He can play a handful of roles…and play them some more…and some more…and some more. As i said, his whole career is a parody. So its a little unfair to rag on him for the last few years!

  6. Funny .. all the critique
    I couldn’t act to save my life
    Nor de Niro
    Not Pacino
    I bet de Niro has more skill in his little finger than the wingers have !!!

  7. I agree with Pete. after The Deerhunter, De Niro does not have to prove anything. I just appreciate that he is still with us.

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