Robert De Niro: What just happened?

last-vegas

A friend texted me during the World Series, minutes after a “Last V egas” commercial aired, with the following observation: “Robert De Niro’s latter-day sins are so bad I feel it takes away from his great old stuff. This Vegas movie looks like he lost a bet and had to take the role. Get a new manager!”

Whether “Last Vegas,” which co-stars Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline, is a hit (or, dare I say it, a good film) or not, it certainly represents another strange choice for the star of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.”

This is not a new criticism, but it is worth revisiting. What did happen to De Niro, exactly? Looking at his last two decades of work, 1995 appears to be the last time in which his films really, truly mattered. That was the year of two films that were underrated upon release, and are both now rightfully considered to be classics: “Casino” and “Heat.” Take a look at what followed:

  • 1995     Casino
  • 1995     Heat
  • 1996     The Fan
  • 1996     Sleepers
  • 1996     Marvin’s Room
  • 1997     CopLand
  • 1997     Jackie Brown
  • 1997     Wag the Dog
  • 1998     Great Expectations
  • 1998     Ronin
  • 1999     Analyze This
  • 1999     Flawless
  • 2000     The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
  • 2000     Men of Honor
  • 2000     Meet the Parents
  • 2001     15 Minutes
  • 2001     The Score
  • 2002     Showtime
  • 2002     City by the Sea
  • 2002     Analyze That
  • 2004     Godsend
  • 2004     Shark Tale
  • 2004     Meet the Fockers
  • 2004     The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • 2005     Hide and Seek
  • 2006     Arthur and the Invisibles
  • 2006     The Good Shepherd
  • 2007     Stardust
  • 2008     Righteous Kill
  • 2008     What Just Happened
  • 2009     Everybody’s Fine
  • 2010     Machete
  • 2010     Stone
  • 2010     Little Fockers
  • 2011     Manuale d’amore 3
  • 2011     Killer Elite
  • 2011     Limitless
  • 2011     New Year’s Eve
  • 2012     Being Flynn
  • 2012     Red Lights
  • 2012     Freelancers
  • 2012     Silver Linings Playbook
  • 2013     The Big Wedding
  • 2013     Killing Season
  • 2013     The Family
  • 2013     Last Vegas

It is an odd, head-scratching list, is it not? There are many solid films here, but even the greats — “Jackie Brown,” “Wag the Dog,” last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” — feel as if any other actor of De Niro’s age could have played the parts effectively. Some of the films are underrated, especially “Great Expectations,” “Ronin,” “Stone,” and even the De Niro-directed “Good Shepherd.”

But my goodness. Look at the misses! There is a stretch of time, from 1999 to 2006, that is absurdly bad — and that was pre-“Righteous Kill”!

It is too easy to say this was paycheck work, although I am sure that played a part. There must have been something in each of these that attracted De Niro. I think the more likely explanation is that he does not care to be challenged.

Look at the directors of these films. After Scorsese, Mann, Tarantino, and perhaps Cuaron, where are the heavyweights? Barry Levinson no longer fits on that list, and I think Luc Besson is in the same category. Not until David O’Russell is there a real giant — and he helped bring De Niro his first Oscar nomination in years.

For the sake of his legacy, let us hope Robert De Niro’s planned re-team with Martin Scorsese, “The Irishman,” moves into production soon. It can’t end like this. Can it?

Image courtesy of CBS