Hide and Seek

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by John Olson

Written by Ari Schlossberg

With Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Kamke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving, Dylan Baker, Melissa Leo, and Robert John Burke

“Some people say that drama is easy and comedy is hard,” Robert De Niro said when he hosted Saturday Night Live two years ago. “Not true. I’ve been making comedies the last couple years, and it’s nice. When you make a drama you spend all day beating a guy to death with a hammer or what have you. Or you have to take a bite out of somebody’s face. On the other hand, with a comedy, you yell at Billy Crystal for an hour and you go home.”

I can’t read that quote without laughing, because it so perfectly captures the psychotic dimension of De Niro’s screen persona. But even the most charitable observer would have to admit that for the last few years the revered actor, now 61, has been going home early. His last really good run was in 1997, when he played a buttoned-down internal affairs investigator in James Mangold’s Cop Land, a Washington spin doctor in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, and a dangerously dumb hood in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Since then he’s given good performances in decent dramas like City by the Sea (2002) and The Score (2001), his only pairing with Marlon Brando. But the past eight years of his career are littered with schlock: bad action movies like 15 Minutes (2001), buddy films like Showtime (2002) with Eddie Murphy, or clumsy horror flicks like last year’s wretched Godsend and the new Hide and Seek.

Like many moviegoers, I first saw De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), and for the next decade he was the most interesting movie actor in America. He consistently chose challenging and exciting projects: The Godfather: Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), 1900 (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983). Back then the idea of him making a genre movie–an action comedy or horror flick–would have been unthinkable. But the exertion of always having to take a bite out of someone’s face seems to have worn him out. After a long and mercurial career, De Niro has become a Hollywood brand name: Hide and Seek was the top moneymaker last weekend, followed at number five by his comedy Meet the Fockers, which set a box-office record at Christmas. His movies with Ben Stiller (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers) and Billy Crystal (Analyze This, Analyze That) have grossed about $564 million to date.

Hide and Seek has the sort of high-gimmick story popularized by M. Night Shyamalan, with an outrageous plot twist–which I’m about to reveal–in the third act. De Niro plays a Manhattan psychologist whose wife has apparently committed suicide with a razor in the bathtub. His young daughter (Dakota Fanning) sees her there, which reduces her to a near-catatonic state, and her father, hoping to draw her out, moves them out of Manhattan into a big house in upstate New York. Strange things begin to happen in the house at night–accusatory messages are written over the bathtub in red paint–but the little girl insists they’re the work of Charlie, her imaginary friend. De Niro gives a quietly compelling performance as the father, who struggles to be patient with his clearly deranged child, and director John Polson (Swimfan) maintains a seductively languid pace. But the movie goes down the tubes in the last third, when De Niro turns out to be schizophrenic. He’s Charlie, and having caught his wife cheating, he smothered her with a pillow, then slit her wrists and stuck her in the bath, a ruse that any medical examiner would have uncovered.

Twists like these force a viewer to reevaluate the entire movie up until then, and once I’d done so, I was both more impressed by De Niro’s technique and less moved by his character. The psychologist dotes on his daughter, but he’s also strangely passive; he says he wants her to get better, but he’s actually trying to keep her quiet. At first glance it must have seemed an interesting role, someone who appears concerned but turns out to be monstrously controlling, and De Niro delivers a subtle characterization. The impulse it serves, though, is so stupidly dark that ultimately one has to wonder who’s reading scripts for him. A decade ago he was willing to produce and direct Chazz Palminteri’s excellent father-son drama A Bronx Tale, which gave him a much more successful paternal role as a middle-aged bus driver whose boy becomes infatuated with a local hood. Now he green-lights movies like Hide and Seek, dragging fine supporting players like Dylan Baker, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving, and Melissa Leo down with him.

Of course, any movie actor faces diminishing opportunities as he enters his 60s, and unlike Robert Redford, James Garner, Clint Eastwood, or Paul Newman (who just turned 80), De Niro has never been particularly good with women. (Among his least regarded performances are romantic roles opposite Liza Minnelli, Meryl Streep, and Jane Fonda.) I can’t explain the paradox of the country’s most highly regarded actor scratching around for good parts, but if the last few years are any indication, we can look forward to another decade of hack comedies in which he’ll play explosively angry authority figures, competently scripted urban dramas in which he’ll play a troubled cop, and fright flicks in which he’ll play the Evil One. Recently he’s turned up in an American Express commercial, part of an endorsement deal that helps underwrite his TriBeCa Film Festival. De Niro trudges around lower Manhattan, his face creased by a grimace as he surveys the wounded neighborhood post 9/11. Whenever I see the ad I imagine he’s reviewing future roles in his mind.