Robert De Niro’s best work in years – and it’s an ad for bagels

Peddling bread on the mean streets of Bolton seems to suit the star. Take note, Scorsese

‘Bolton bakes best bagel? My butt’: Robert De Niro in the Warburtons TV ad. Photograph: Jeff Moore/Warburtons/PA

‘Bolton bakes best bagel? My butt’: Robert De Niro in the Warburtons TV ad. Photograph: Jeff Moore/Warburtons/PA

 

You will be reading a lot this week about the death of Robert De Niro’s career. You will see stills from his newest role, in a commercial for Warburtons, the English Johnston Mooney & O’Brien, and they will all be accompanied by doom-laden hand-wringing about the fall of a once unbeatable actor.

To see a man with the gravitas of Robert De Niro surrounded by bagels, leaning on a bagel-coloured desk and wearing a bagel-coloured suit in a commercial for a bagel company is unforgivable, they will say. It will once and for all underline the irreparable damage wrought by chasing the quick buck, they will say.

I am here to offer a counterpoint. I put it to you that the Warburtons advert is not the death of Robert De Niro’s career but his best work in living memory.

First, let’s not pretend that De Niro is above making commercials. Actors of his generation and calibre have long supplemented their income with adverts. Witness Christopher Walken advertising cars. Witness Harvey Keitel advertising car insurance. Witness Willem Dafoe advertising fish fingers. Witness Al Pacino spoofing the idea of selling out for an advert in a film immediately selling out for a real advert.

What’s more, De Niro himself has made commercials before. In 1970, back when he was a struggling hopeful making Roger Corman movies, he starred in an advert for the AMC Ambassador that managed to be even more stuffed to the gills with two-dimensional stereotypes than the bagel ad. There’s a kid in a vest shouting “Hey, Ma! Pa!” There’s an Italian-American father who shadow-boxes his son. There’s De Niro himself, kissing his mother and yelling “You look beeeoooootifow” in a way that would make the Italic Institute of America choke on its meatballs. Compared to this, the Warburtons advert is a finely considered work of unparalleled restraint.

Making a point: De Niro finally gets to raise a finger in anger. Photograph: Jeff Moore/Warburtons/PA
Making a point: De Niro finally gets to raise a finger in anger. Photograph: Jeff Moore/Warburtons/PA

But, most importantly, he’s actually good in it. Even in the first five seconds of the Warburtons ad De Niro looks more assured than he has in decades. To look at the past two decades of his filmography is to see a man lost at sea. He doesn’t know what we want from him any more. He doesn’t know who he is. Should he try to maintain his leading-man status in drearily unworthy dramas such as The Comedian and Grudge Match? Should he try to maintain his integrity by taking small parts in well-received but underwatched indies? Should he make more Dirty Grandpas? Is that what people want?

The Warburtons advert is different. The Warburtons advert understands how to play to his strengths. Look at the swagger as he walks into the bakery office and slams down a newspaper. Look at the happiness in his eyes because he finally gets to raise a finger and interrupt a stammering authority figure again. Listen to the confidence when he introduces his colleagues Benny Slice, Tony Two Bagels and Jimmy Butterfingers. Look at the commitment in his eyes when he growls: “Bolton bakes best bagel? My butt.” De Niro is luxuriating in his comfort zone here. I might even go as far as saying that Warburtons understands him better than anyone in the world outside of Martin Scorsese.

Sure, it’s easy to knock a fading actor like Robert De Niro for cashing in his reputation to advertise bread, but would you rather watch the Warburtons advert 47 times in a row or his 2002 Eddie Murphy buddy-cop disaster, Showtime, just once? The bagels win every time. – Guardian

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