Film Review: Undercover Grandpa

A mind-numbing premise that’s often embarrassing to its illustrious cast. Only James Caan’s presence keeps it from being totally irrelevant.
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On paper, some movies may not sound particularly enticing until you see a particular actor’s name in the cast and it makes you think, “How bad can this movie be if ‘Actor X’ chose to be in it?” That question is put to the test as you watch Oscar nominee James Caan demean himself in Undercover Grandpa.

Long absent from mainstream films, Caan might have noted the money being made by another Godfather vet, Robert De Niro, with his movies Dirty Grandpa and the upcoming War with Grandpa. He must have perked up when he saw the title page on this script. Not that we should read too much into his decision to make this movie, beyond the fact that according to tabloids he owes alimony to his most recent ex-wife.

Awkward teen Jake Bouchard (Dylan Everett) is always drawing in class rather than paying attention. With a longtime crush on class cutie Angie Wagner (Greta Onieogou), he somehow finds the courage to ask her to attend a party with him. Sadly, Jake is forced to stay home and have dinner with his grandfather Lou (Caan) that night, but when Angela disappears—kidnapped by a foreign power for reasons that will remain mostly unclear—Lou gathers his war buddies, once known as “The Devil’s Scum,” to help rescue her. His friends include characters played by the likes of Paul Sorvino and Louis Gossett, Jr., who also haven’t been particularly active in recent years.

Directed by little-known Canadian TV helmer Erik Canuel, Undercover Grandpa is the latest family movie produced for the home-video market that doesn’t expect many people to see it in theatres, even if what’s in theatres isn’t that much better. The fact that the producers have assembled such an impressive cast to tell this story does offer some hope it might introduce younger viewers to actors like Caan. Even more hope may arise when the story introduces a spy organization called ASPIC that’s run by Jessica (“Arrested Development”) Walters’s Madeline Harcourt, but she’s also severely underused.

It’s hard to call Undercover Grandpa a “comedy,” since there’s never anything particularly funny about it. Instead, it fits into whatever family action genre in which forgotten movies like Agent Cody Banks and Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker might be placed. The script by Jeff Schechter is nothing special, mostly relying on generational humor between Jake and his grandfather’s buddies, although the fact that the filmmakers take all of this so seriously just makes it worse.

Everett is a perfectly fine young actor, who immediately gets overshadowed whenever onscreen with his elders, including Caan. As one of the few female characters, Onieogou disappears for a good portion of the film, only to spend the second half as a screaming damsel in distress. In other words, your young daughter may not get much out of this experience.

As with the recent Going in Style, movies like this are often little more than ageism disguised as comedy, trying to get laughs from watching older folks making fools of themselves. In fact, seeing veteran actors demean themselves for laughs is often sadder than it is funny.

Amidst this aggravating narrative, there are a few amusing characters, like tech expert Harry Nederlander (Kenneth Welsh), and some clever bits that would work well within a higher-profile family film. Still, it often feels Caan is bringing his B-game to what is clearly weaker material. To know that an Oscar-nominated vet like him has to do (nearly) straight-to-video movies like this one to earn a paycheck makes you wish a filmmaker like Tarantino would write him the juicier role he deserves.

Undercover Grandpa could have been far worse, and maybe it wouldn’t be so grueling to get through if we weren’t watching legendary actors lower themselves in embarrassing ways. If nothing else, this is an awful reminder that even acting greats sometimes need to take whatever jobs come their way to help pay the bills.

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