Monday Morning Critic – The Intern And The Ultimate Cinematic Legacy of Robert De Niro

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As some of you may know I’ve got a fairly long commute on a regular basis; I need something more than the radio to entertain me. Thus I’ve become a big fan of podcasting for the last year. When I was taking the Metra to downtown Chicago, and now driving a substantial distance, listening to podcasts became a great way to kill time during my commute. And one I was listening to this past week got me thinking.

Matt Atchity, editor in chief of Rotten Tomatoes, speculated on Adam Carolla‘s podcast about the ultimate legacy of Robert De Niro. It was their usual game they play on the show, guessing the RT score of various De Niro films, but something he said was far more interesting than just discussing what people en masse said in a statistical formula about the quality of film. That aspect of modern cinema discussion drives me nuts in the same way Robin Williams’s character was driven nuts in the statistical analysis of poetry in Dead Poets Society.

But when it comes to evaluating other things about cinema, the more colorful ones at least, sometimes good statistical analysis is never a bad thing. I once came up with my own version of Sabremetrics to evaluate an actor’s star power that still needs some work on it. I can’t believe I wrote than four years ago, to be fair.

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I’ve always been driven nuts by people arguing a film’s quality by using a Rotten Tomato number as the sole qualifier for a film’s quality because it’s just using a logical fallacy. That’s Argumentum ad populum for those who never took a logic course. But something Atchity said did make me think.

Something they had kicked around the RT offices was Robert De Niro’s ultimate legacy as an actor. He posited on the show that De Niro is perhaps the greatest actor to ever step onto the silver screen and at first glance it’s a fairly easy one to argue in favor of. When you list off his best work it’s comprised of films on everyone’s Top 10 list. He’s made over 90 films in his career, so evaluating him on the whole is tough especially considering he’s still making films regularly. We can think there’s a film like The Departed still out there, waiting for De Niro. De Niro was supposed to be in that film, apparently, and dropped out for what was the role that Martin Sheen knocked out of the park.

De Niro’s top films are legendary in a way that’s incredibly hard for a lot of actors to match. You could do a Top 10 list of just De Niro films and there wouldn’t be a weak link in the bunch.

When you look at his topline films, the ones that’ll be first mentioned in his obituary, it’s a murderer’s row: The Godfather Part 2, HEAT, Goodfellas, Casino, Midnight Run, A Bronx Tale, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Wag the Dog and more. De Niro’s fastball films, the ones you point to when you say you’re a fan of his, are incredible. There are very few actors who’s top of the mill work comes close for any number of reasons. When De Niro dies we’ll have marathons of his work and praise him, rightfully so, as one of the elite actors of his generation.

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Between him, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson it’s hard to make a choice on who’s the best and/or who had the best work. All had similar career fall offs over the past 20 years, as well, as the four have been in any number of awful films. And that’s the one thing that bugs me, the one that prevents me from an instanteous agreement with Atchity. De Niro has made a list of terrible films that would rival his Top 10 for some of the worst cinema ever made as well. To me that’s the ultimate problem for De Niro on the whole.

If he only had a handful of bad films on his resume it’d be one thing … but he’s the actor who also starred in the Meet the Parents trilogy, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, New Year’s Eve, Hide and Seek, Analyze That, The Fan, The Family, Last Vegas and Grudge Match among others. There’s a handful of historically terrible films in there to go along with a number of just terrible films. It’s fairly rare when De Niro isn’t in a mediocre to bad film, usually because he’s a supporting actor in a prestige film.

He’s made a lot of terrible movies that at one point were beneath him … and now are kind of in his wheelhouse. We don’t expect greatness out of the end of his career like we did before. For the greatest actor to ever step on the silver screen it’s mind boggling to think that walking into anything he’s done recently has substantially lowered expectations. It comes down to “Please don’t embarrass yourself” from the film fan’s perspective. The reverence a lot of people have him for him is hard to understand for a lot of young film fans because they never lived through peak De Niro, when his acting fastball was on point.

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For a whole generation De Niro is the kind of the big screen equivalent of Ed O’Neill in a lot of ways. Both had their roles before the internet age and now coast on their legacy to a certain degree, for starters. Both have made a secondary career out of spoofing their image that it’s now accepted as their image to a large degree. De Niro played a tough guy for years and now he makes his living mocking that tough guy image in any number of movies in the same way O’Neill’s role in Modern Family is a direct mock of Al Bundy in any number of degrees.

It’s a conversation we had with Orson Welles and Marlon Brando, who had substantial early work followed by decades of terribleness, and one we’ll have when De Niro dies. How much weight does the back end of De Niro’s career, when he was paycheck hunting, pull on the brilliance of the first half? To me that’s the big thing holding off on me

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound

The Martian – Matt Damon gets trapped on Mars. People have to save him.

See it – The hype has been insane for this and Ridley Scott either hits home runs or strikes out miserably. This looks like a home run.

Sicario – Emily Blunt finds herself hunting drug lords in the FBI with some bad people.

See it – The review have been good but I get an odd vibe, like this is this year’s version of The Counselor.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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