A few years ago, when it was cool to hate "Titanic," I picked mercilessly on Leonardo DiCaprio (as all males at the time did). I criticized his performances in every film I saw, mainly "Titanic." Even though I liked the film, if you were a guy and admitted to enjoying it, you were automatically labeled gay.
Over the years I found new respect for DiCaprio as an actor. After I saw him in "Catch Me If You Can" I realized he had a great deal of natural talent and was striving to abandon his "pretty boy" roots. Then I saw "Gangs of New York" and felt he was strangely miscast.
Going back to "This Boy's Life," we catch an early glimpse of DiCaprio and one of his finest performances to date. He is totally convincing in this film, set in the 1950s, based on a true story.
Unfortunately the rest of the movie is not so lucky. The typically reliable Robert De Niro delivers one of his worst performances ever as a crazy kook from Seattle named Dwight, who falls for Toby's (DiCaprio) mother, Caroline, played by Ellen Barkin.
I applaud De Niro's recent ventures into comedy and disagree with the critics who claim he has "sold out." But his performance in "This Boy's Life" is simply unacceptable. It starts out fine enough, and his Seattle accent is impressive. But as the film progresses, he turns into a strange comical character; he is supposed to be scary and intimidating, but he is neither.
I feel the greatest flaw of this film centers around De Niro's character and performance. First of all, Toby (Leo) acts like a jerk. We don't find much sympathy for him. When he falls into the hands of Dwight, we eventually feel a bit of sympathy, but because Dwight never seems very cruel or scary, it's hard even then.
There have been some very good child abuse movies made in the past. "Radio Flyer" was not a great movie by any means, but by portraying child abuse through the eyes of a child and portraying the guilty as a truly cruel human being, it succeeded and made us feel for the boys.
"This Boy's Life" doesn't work because it's a bit too sarcastic, knowing and self-assured. De Niro is not scary. In fact, many times I agreed with his character. He rarely abused Toby (in the film, anyway) and at many times, even though he was drunk, offered good advice.
And the scenes such as the one in which he steals Toby's boy scout outfit aren't upsetting. They're humorous. It's hard to find fear and sympathy for a boy when we're laughing at his plights.
The ending was the icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned. Throughout De Niro had managed to retain some level of dignity and realism, but at the end he just let loose and turned into a screaming, howling, crybaby of a man: obsessive, paranoid and crazy. And he's still not scary, because he's so pathetic that we're laughing at him. And by then, the accent has become so corny, and the dialogue and happy-face gestures so hysterical, that the film totally negates whatever its point was and becomes a half-hearted bittersweet comedy with a great performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and unimpressive elements elsewhere.
Overall, "This Boy's Life" is a mixed bag of a film that doesn't know whether to find sympathy for Tobias Wolff or humor in his situations. If you're a fan of the actors, give it a go; otherwise, I recommend "Radio Flyer."