So this is what Robert De Niro's career has come to, starring in films in which he parodies his most familiar roles until he becomes the master painter urinating on his own beautiful canvases. Last year, it was pleasant and harmless enough: Analyze This was no Sopranos, but at least it allowed De Niro, as a Mob boss in need of a shrink, room enough to squeeze in a few threats beneath the sitcom laughs ("I go fag, you die"). By the time the movie degenerated into a Godfather, Part I in-joke, complete with clever dream sequence, it was harmless enough to allow for the obvious gags. The scene did nothing to desecrate a beloved cinematic memory. It was almost nice to see that De Niro could have fun without making fun; he mocked without looking like a clown.
But now, in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (which was penned by Analyze This author Kenneth Lonergan), De Niro has applied the makeup, scars and all, and come out looking very much like the fool. Not since George Reeves has an actor made such misstep, and it's entirely his fault: De Niro co-produced this Frankenstein (half CGI, half live-action), and it was his idea to include a scene in which he tickles Travis Bickle and makes him piss his pants. For no apparent reason, De Niro's Fearless Leader breaks into De Niro's Taxi Driver monologue: "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" Only, it's now rendered in a Pottsylvanian dialect, half-German and half-Russian and, occasionally, totally incomprehensible. It inspires groans instead of laughs; the icon is broken, smashed into a million pieces. Perhaps for his next film, De Niro will portray a boxer who grows so fat, it takes Dick Gregory and Richard Simmons to whip him into shape. Or maybe he'll just smash a baseball bat against his own head.
Were Rocky and Bullwinkle vaguely amusing instead of banal, dim, and sophomoric, perhaps the scene would work, but it's surrounded by jokes that fall as flat as a squirrel who's forgotten how to fly. De Niro has made a handful of bad films, but not until now has he been bad in them; it's like watching Laurence Olivier flounder about in 1980's The Jazz Singer, squandering legend on the likes of Neil Diamond. Jason Alexander (as the sniveling Boris Badenov) and Rene Russo (as his lover Natasha Fatale) are either wasted or dead weight dragging De Niro in the mire. In a film this torpid, it's hard to tell what's what.
For a few moments, the film has promise, a spark of life. It begins in the two-dimensional decimated forest of Frostbite Falls, which has been reduced to a graveyard of tree stumps. Rocky (still voiced by June Foray) and Bullwinkle have been in exile since their show was cancelled by NBC in 1964, and they live off meager royalty checks (a mere three and a half cents), while their Narrator has moved in with his mother, forced to describe her every move. The opening moments capture some of the sardonic, anarchic spirit of the original cartoon: It's animation for adults, unafraid to poke fun at itself, no less so than when The Narrator (voiced by Keith Scott, who also does Bullwinkle) bemoans the fact that even Rocky and Bullwinkle's wordplay, the hallmark of Jay Ward's original series, "had become hackneyed and cheap." Turns out it's no joke, but a dire warning. Watching the familiar duo pratfall their way through this redo is like watching the Marx Brothers groan through A Night in Casablanca: Rocky and Bullwinkle, once so erudite and wry, now swap awful puns, recalling fading shadows instead of fond memories.
Had the filmmakers, including director Des McAnuff (responsible for the stage production of The Who's Tommy), left the film in the animated world, perhaps it would have worked; after all, part of the old series' charm was its flat, crude animation that looked like moving Pop Art. But once Rocky and Bullwinkle are freed from their cels, so to speak, the movie becomes nothing but a litany of wretched puns bound to a familiar, moribund plot. Fearless Leader and his comrades, transplanted into the real world by a film producer (a manic Janeane Garofalo) eager to make a Rocky and Bullwinkle movie, plan to take over the world with a cable channel that broadcasts awful television shows. Once they've turned America into mindless zombies (oh, that old joke), Fearless Leader will get himself elected president--unless Moose and Squirrel can stop him.
There are a handful of decent jokes--in, out, and otherwise--to divert your attention from the film's awfulness every little while, but most take forever to play out, including one in a movie studio's Green Light House, where, it turns out, films really get made. The first time Bullwinkle notices the blandness of the strip-mall landscape is funny; the second time, it's thin. A Cops parody almost works--"Hey, Rocky, your face is all blurry"--but becomes tiresome; it's a punch line delivered with a yawn. And you can almost see the white flag of surrender when a minor character mentions 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
This is a road movie that runs into a thousand dead-ends, none more lethal than cameos from an unctuous Whoopi Goldberg, Randy Quaid, John Goodman, Jonathan Winters (who shows up in three different roles), Good Burger's Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson, Don Novello (inexplicably, playing twins), Carl Reiner, and a traveling mattress salesman who may or may not be Billy Crystal. This almost feels like a remake of 1963's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, a whole lot of something about nothing. Speaking of which, the movie's female lead is played by Piper Perabo, as bungling FBI agent Karen Sympathy, who must bring Rocky and Bullwinkle to New York to defeat Fearless Leader. She's this generation's Macaulay Culkin, which is as dreadful as it sounds.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.