I didn’t expect much from Luc Besson’s dark mob comedy The Family, but something about watching the great Robert DeNiro in another disappointing effort stung surprisingly hard. For the past couple of years DeNiro has gone from one lackluster motion picture to the next; does anyone even remember The Big Wedding? Red Lights? Being Flynn? Stone? Everybody’s Fine? What Just Happened? Let’s not even mention DeNiro’s participation in the ensemble mess New Year’s Eve. Aside from last year’s great, Oscar-nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook, DeNiro – and I mean the legendary DeNiro of Raging Ball, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather Pt. 2 – has all but been missing from our screens recently. None of this is to say that DeNiro has actually given abysmal performances – quite the contrary, DeNiro has a level of star power that makes just his appearance a welcome addition to any film – but his film choices as of late have left much to be desired. I mean, Little Fockers? Seriously? All of this got me thinking – what should Robert DeNiro do next?
I’ve heard some people say DeNiro should just throw in the towel and retire but that’s just preposterous! Anyone who saw Silver Linings last year knows that even at age 70 the dude can still tear into a role with an unshakeable level of tenderness and authenticity. I’ve heard others claim DeNiro should follow Clint Eastwood and stick to directing – he had great success with 1993’s A Bronx Tale and 2006’s The Good Shepard – but, as previously mentioned, his exceptional acting talents are still in tact for him to just abandon performing all together. So, what should DeNiro do next?
An obvious answer, and the one most people give when I ask them, is that DeNiro should reteam with the man who truly defined him as an actor – Martin Scorsese. With the right screenplay, a Scorsese/DeNiro reunion could be a milestone of modern filmmaking. As I sat watching The Family, which tells the story of an ex-mafia boss (DeNiro) who joins the witness protection program only for his demons (in the form of wronged gangsters) to catch up with him – I couldn’t help think what Scorsese would do with this material as a director. If Scorsese directed DeNiro as an aged mafia boss reconciling his past demons, the results could be dazzling – a mafia movie aware of the genre’s past (I mean, these are the two guys who essentially own the genre!) but also one that breaks new ground by giving us something original and dense, something that pushes the genre – and DeNiro as an actor – to new heights. As dreamy as it sounds, I don’t’ think reteaming with Scorsese is the move for DeNiro at this point; the anticipation for a reunion film would be so monstrously high (these are the two that gave us Travis Bickle!) that anything less than a masterpiece would be instantly marked a failure. That pressure is definitely not something DeNiro needs. Plus, do we really need to see another DeNiro mafia man? Not really.
While working with Scorsese isn’t my answer, the idea of using DeNiro’s past to create new highs for him as an actor is. In fact, that’s EXACTLY the type of role DeNiro needs. His neurotic dad in Silver Linings was an emotional return to form, and working with character driven directors like David O. Russell again or James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) could continue to give DeNiro those honestly raw roles that hit startlingly close to home, but what DeNiro needs at this point in his career is a performance that shatters all the pre-conceived notions we associate with the actor, a performance that could physically rebirth DeNiro as an actor.
One director who could certainly do this is mastermind Quentin Tarantino, for he’s semi-done it before when DeNiro starred in 1997’s criminally underrated Jackie Brown. If you think of what Tarantino did for Leonardo DiCaprio last year by casting him as sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained – he completely took our image of DiCaprio as a handsome, charismatic actor and crushed it – than you can see what I want for DeNiro – a role that takes who we think DeNiro is and alters it dramatically. Working with Tarantino could give DeNiro one hell of a showy, scene-chewing performance, but something in me – as fun as it would be to see DeNiro chew the living hell out of a Tarantino picture – doesn’t want the actor to completely abandon the tenderness he so effectively showed in Silver Linings. So, how do we rebirth DeNiro as an actor while still keeping that tenderness that makes him such a joy to watch?
To me the answer is simple: DeNiro must work with ALEXANDER PAYNE, the Academy Award winning writer/director of Election, Sideways, About Schmidt, and The Descendants. More than any director working today, Payne has an uncanny ability to cast and utilize lead actors in a way that is staggeringly effective. Every Payne film takes the perceptions and predetermined beliefs that come with its leading actor and deconstructs it. Think of Clooney’s career best work in The Descendants for an example (a role that should’ve won him the Oscar two years ago). When you think of George Clooney you think handsome, personable, a man who has it all and is living some version of the perfect life; in other words, our perception of Clooney equals the character of Matthew King, the handsome and personable husband and father who essentially has the perfect life in Hawaii (or so it would seem on the surface). What makes The Descendants so dramatically riveting is that over the course of the film our perception of Clooney is shattered as Matt King must deal with his wife’s fatal injury. Yes, Matt King is a fictional character, but we project all of our thoughts about who George Clooney is onto Matt King since the two are semi-interchangeable. This makes the character’s deconstruction reveal sides of Clooney we’ve never seen, vulnerable and tragic sides we almost never associate with Clooney. In The Descendants, Payne gives Clooney that reborn performance, a role that strips the actor of everything we think he possesses and forces him to show us sides of himself we never thought possible – this is the role DeNiro needs.
DeNiro needs his own About Schmidt, which stripped Jack Nicholson of his playboy charisma to reveal an old, tragic soul, or Sideways, which deconstructed the comic humbleness of Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church, or Election, which exposed a manically twisted side to Broadway showman Matthew Broderick. DeNiro needs Payne to wake him up, to prove to audiences all over the world that there’s still surprise left in DeNiro’s decade spanning career. If DeNiro works with Payne, I already smell Oscar. What do you think?
What should Robert DeNiro do next?
Article by Zack Sharf