Interview tantrums will kid no one that Robert De Niro is a light comedy natural

The actor, who recently stormed out of a promotional interview with the Radio Times, has had a tempestuous, on-off relationship with comedy over the years.

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So Robert De Niro walked out of an interview this week with the Radio Times, citing the “negative inferences” of his inquisitor, Emma Brockes, who had dared to ask how he keeps from going into autopilot mode during long days on set. Oh dear. I expect this will not be the outcome that Warner Bros, the studio behind his new comedy The Intern, was hoping for.

Had De Niro been promoting a gangster movie or anything else where he gets to wave a gun around, then his behaviour would have been entirely on-message. In the Seventies and Eighties, he excelled at chin-and-jaw acting, concentrating all his tension and fury into the area around his mouth. But that doesn’t really work for comedy.

And not only is it comedy that De Niro is touting at the moment, it is comedy of the gentlest sort. The Intern is directed by Nancy Meyers, who made It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give; it’s not another Fockers sequel. So that merits a double “Oh dear.”

The whole reason for the promotional tour was to get people to come to the movie. To buy De Niro as a light, fun, comic presence. I haven’t seen the picture, in which he stars opposite Anne Hathaway, but the trailer (watch below) portrays him as bumbling and tentative; we see him being inducted into the ritual of celebratory fist-bumps in the office where he is taken on as an ageing intern. You may think of fists when you imagine De Niro, but I’ll wager they’re doing something more violent than bumping.

De Niro has had a tempestuous, on-off relationship with comedy over the years. He was a gas in Mean Streets and parts of New York, New York, and he used his sourness to brilliant comic effect in the 1987 Midnight Run.

The trouble started when he set out in earnest to be funny. Analyze This, in which he plays a mobster who visits a therapist, worked well enough and showed that the actor has a mesmerising knack for blurring comedy and menace without ever quite throwing in his lot with one or the other.

Thereafter he pushed his luck. He has tried gentle comedy (Everybody’s Fine), which is just De Niro minus the temper, or he has made his aggression humorous by exaggerating it or virtually winking at the camera, as he did in Meet the Parents and its sequels.

But when it comes to anything subtler, I can think only of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Here he has a shambolic comic charm without self-consciousness; he displays all the grunting absurdity of a caveman who has accidentally invented the world’s first “Knock, knock” joke.  He was convincingly soft, too, in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, where he was relieved from the pressure to put a comic spin on his own persona.

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.

But it seems The Intern is trying for something more along the lines of the charming-old-coot performance he gave in Everybody’s Fine and the buddy movie Last Vegas.

What the interview walk-out proves is that sometimes the reboot doesn’t work and the system reverts to its factory settings.

It was more than 20 years ago that he stormed out of an interview with Barry Norman for the BBC. Norman’s crime had been to mention in passing that De Niro had lobbied hard for the Tom Hanks role in Big. (Can you imagine how terrifying that gentle comedy would have become with that one casting change?)

“I almost came to blows with De Niro,” Norman said later. “He got up my nose, I got up his nose, he stormed out of the room and I chased after him. We both snarled at each other and I thought I’d better let it go. He was a lot younger than me and a lot fitter than me. I could have been in deep trouble.”

At least Brockes had the wisdom not to lock horns with him. She let his behaviour and his language (as he stormed out, he referred to her as “darling”) do the talking instead.

But the episode provides a fascinating insight into the tension and disparity between an on-screen makeover and the off-screen reality. De Niro can do all the glossy, light-hearted, feel-good comedies he likes. The world will have a hard time buying them, though, if he’s Jake La Motta again once the director calls “Cut!”

The Intern opens next week.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.