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.