Gilbey on Film: Bobby bland

Will the real Robert De Niro please stand up?

I don't have any New Year resolutions, but I do harbour a vague hope: that Robert De Niro will return to acting in 2011. And please don't tell me that he never gave it up -- those would be the words of a person who had escaped the misfortune of seeing Little Fockers, the third and most gruesome in the Meet the Parents trilogy. Perhaps you noticed that De Niro also had a small part recently in Machete, Robert Rodriguez's exploitation homage (yes, another one). His failure to make much impression on screen was in stark contrast to the days when a Robert De Niro walk-on part was a cause for celebration, as in his Al Capone in The Untouchables, which amounted to little more than a few menacing scenes and a lot of Armani. Alternatively, a cameo might reveal a side of him we had never glimpsed, like his charming silliness as a renegade plumber in Brazil. Terry Gilliam told Ian Christie (for Faber's Gilliam on Gilliam book) that De Niro "approached this small part as if he was doing the main part."

He kept flying to London and spent months arguing over every piece of costume and every prop. He was going to brain surgeons he knew in New York and watching operations because I'd said that this character, although a plumber, was like a surgeon . . . We actually built a mock-up of the set just so he could practice. It was as if we weren't making the main film; the special effects, props and costume people were going crazy because they had so much other work to do, but every time Bobby came in, everything would stop and we had to deal with him preparing for his role. He's just not aware of anything else in the world and he makes the most of whatever it is he has to do. He's very serious, very earnest and very hard-working, but it drove everybody else crazy.

If he applies this degree of rigour to his performance as Jack Byrnes, a tyrannical father-in-law, in the Meet the Parents films -- and I find it hard to believe he does -- then something isn't working like it used to; the old alchemy has fizzled out. De Niro the clown is such an odd proposition that there was mileage in it in the beginning; and by the beginning I mean his turn as a Mob boss in therapy in the 1998 comedy Analyze This. Of course, he was funny way before then: he's a riot in Mean Streets, he's dryly hilarious in Midnight Run and Jackie Brown. (In the latter he has all the grunting, un-self-conscious absurdity of a caveman who has accidentally invented the world's first "Knock, knock" joke.)

But the idea of De Niro as a deliberate goofball has its roots in New York, New York, where his attempts to be light-hearted or charming in the presence of Liza Minnelli provide one of the purest examples of horror outside a Universal monster movie. I'd wager that someone involved with Analyze This was channel-surfing late one night when they saw De Niro trying to woo Minnelli in a nightclub at the start of that movie, and realised that the actor has a mesmerising knack for blurring comedy and menace without ever quite throwing in his lot with one or the other.

De Niro being funny involves none of the traditional levity of comedy. In both Analyze This and the original Meet the Parents film, he brings with him the expressions and body language which had served him so well in straight parts -- the shoulders hunched so they almost touch his ear lobes, the mirthless laugh, the grimacing smile where the eyes disappear into the creases in his face. And it is no coincidence that both these parts call on him to be intimidating even as he is gunning for laughs. If any Hollywood casting director ever conceived of trying to get De Niro to be funny in a non-threatening role, the poor sap is probably stacking shelves or holed up in a padded cell by now.

I think comedy has given De Niro a breather that he probably needed. (That said, it's still no excuse for sending up his own "You talkin' to me?" routine from Taxi Driver in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.) But it's time he took on some more roles that are worthy of his range. What he's lacked recently are great directors. The last decent filmmaker he worked with was himself -- he made the undervalued CIA thriller The Good Shepherd, and gave himself a minor part (he was the only disappointment in it). I maintain that David Cronenberg must have a role for De Niro, somewhere up his sleeve. Can you imagine such a thing? Failing that, I'll just settle for De Niro swearing off any future Fockers. But I'll need it in writing. And in blood.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle