10 Not So Legendary Robert De Niro Performances

News Gabe Toro 9/13/2013 at 8:35AM

Even the great ones have their less-than-great moments, and Robert De Niro is no exception. A long and prolific career means that they can't all be winners. Here are ten that aren't exactly Jake LaMotta.

This weekend, Robert De Niro lets his hair down in The Family, another quick paycheck for one of the greatest, but busiest actors in show business. De Niro’s got two Oscars to his name, and countless accolades from a career of brilliant performances. But when you work as often as he does, you’re bound to make a few mistakes. Maybe the good roles are disappearing, maybe the screen is shrinking. And maybe one of the hardest working men in the movies is just getting a little lazy. We’ll always love you for the truckload of classics you’ve given us, Bobby. But let’s face it, sometimes you could stand to say no. Here are some of those times.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1994)

Kenneth Branagh’s bold decision was to hew closer to the text this time around, presenting a Frankenstein’s monster that wasn’t a hulking strongman or a fearsome monster, but ultimately a fairly literate, self-questioning soul, trapped in a corporeal form he did not seek. So why hire one of Hollywood’s best actors to slap on a thick coat of theater makeup and monologue with De Niro’s famously plainspoken diction? The best decision would have been to play this Frankenstein as a man, and let the makeup bring the theatricality: instead, De Niro camps it up, as if relishing the first and last horror movie monster he would ever play.

The Score (2001)

Seemed like a good idea on paper: De Niro matching wits with Edward Norton, alongside an aged Marlon Brando, three generations (or two and a half, in Norton’s case) of acting royalty. Turns out, The Score was every bit the low-energy vanity project it sounded like, with Norton playing the wily rookie as a man of multiple identities, mismatched against a sleepwalking De Niro and a living legend who indulged his every urge to do as he pleases. The Score seemed special because Norton was (and still is) notoriously picky with his projects, and Brando was in his final days. To De Niro, it was just another paycheck, as it isn’t clear if he’s rolling when shooting the shit with a clearly-improvising Brando, who literally didn’t wear pants for the entirety of his turn. But really, you can’t blame someone for getting paid to hang out with Brando and Norton, even if they’re not doing their job.

Analyze That (2002)

De Niro’s performance in Analyze This was funny because he found the truth in it. It’s not a comedy performance, simply a reworked, slightly askew version of his gangster persona. But by the time the unasked-for sequel rolled around, he was hamming it up to the rafters, desperate to keep up with the yammering energy of Billy Crystal. The ying-yang chemistry between them suddenly swayed yang-yang, with a preening De Niro singing and dancing at one point while inside an institution, doing a riff on mental instability that’s funny and accurate to zero human beings.

Showtime (2002)

A desperately low-energy film from the days when De Niro thought he was a comedian, the legend was paired with a similarly disinterested Eddie Murphy in what was likely one of the worst sets in Hollywood history. A gag within the narrative, which mocks reality TV in a way that was dated when the film came out, finds De Niro’s character receiving acting tips from William Shatner, the joke being that Shatner is an absolutely terrible actor. And yet, somehow, Shatner’s the only funny bit of a miserable movie, completely outshining his decorated co-stars.

Godsend (2004)

Cloning. Remember that hot-button issue? Godsend was a weak attempt to marry topical issues with Rosemary’s Baby-type horror, ashamed of the scares, but not smart enough to explore the philosophical ideas behind a couple cloning their dead child. As the doctor, De Niro could have given a nuanced, complex characterization, but screw it: he’s done that a couple of times before. Instead, he goes well into mad scientist mode, rambling on about an inane master plan that turns Godsend into a cheap bargain bin offering on “4 in 1” DVD packages.


Hide and Seek (2005)

Sub-sub-sub-sub Shyamalan horror finds De Niro not only playing a typically dopey suburban-dad-who-doesn’t-know-he’s-in-a-horror-movie, but also being forced to disgrace himself by acting out a witless, audience-insulting twist. Spoiler alert: multiple personalities, none of them flattering to the star of Raging Bull.

Stardust (2007)

De Niro took a small supporting role in the British classic Brazil, and his working class charm fits right into that universe. Around twenty years later, De Niro would pop up in support of this magical British fantasy, but that subtlety is gone. As Captain Shakespeare, he first comes across like a tough-guy swashbuckler, giving the role the sort of portrayal best reserved for guest-spots on Sesame Street. Once he reveals himself as a crossdressing ponce who gets to spin and twirl while wearing a boa, you start to think that this acting legend just isn’t taking this shit seriously.

Righteous Kill (2008)

Dat kill… wuz RIGHTEOUS. The long-awaited re-teaming of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino turned out to be a dog. Who knew that two legendary actors known for casually sullying their reputations by starring in garbage would unite for, well...a piece of garbage? Surprises everywhere! Pacino comes off worse, forced to act out an embarrassing twist that no actor could pull off, but De Niro is almost equally bad, giving his sort of grumpy, shruggy performances that suggests he’s looking off-camera for cue-cards. Chances are someone told him he was playing a “been-there, done-that detective” and he said, “You had me at ‘that.’”

The Big Wedding (2013)

One of the most recent bombs on De Niro’s resume, this campy and borderline racist piece of garbage finds the Goodfellas star as a horny old man who can’t keep his paws off his old wife (Diane Keaton) and his on-the-side lover (Susan Sarandon). There’s a good movie to be made out of De Niro as an aging lothario: does it need to be sub-Benny Hill crap smuggled into an ensemble wedding movie where literally everyone is pratfalling over the refusal to tell a Hispanic caricature that her son is marrying into a family with separated parents?


The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)

No, Bobby. We’ll never forget you starring alongside a cartoon moose and a squirrel and reprising your famous Taxi Driver routine in a stupid, high decibel accent for those eight year olds in the audience who just love Travis Bickle. To hear De Niro say it, he keeps his Tribeca Film Institute open from the earnings of movies like this. As much as it brings important arts and entertainment to New York City, maybe it’s a worthy sacrifice to help us all pretend this movie never happened.

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I thought he was rather charming in Stardust. It must be boring as an actor to have play everything seriously and it was nice to see him ham it up.

C'mon. STARDUST and DeNiro's performance in it were a lot of fun. I've never understood the lack of support for the film.

I will also have to chime in that while I agree with most of this list, the inclusion of Stardust is baffling. Because he is the Raging Bull (we get it), he cannot ever do camp? As much of your list astutely points out (Showtime, Analyze That, the strangely absent Meet The Little Fockers), De Niro has too often in the last decade gotten away coasting on riffs of his wiseguy persona. However, Vaughn and company actually found a funny and clever way to subvert that in Stardust, and De Niro genuinely looked like he was engaged and having fun, which is rarity with many of his "comedic" performances.