It's a time-honored tradition: Good actor does bad film, but claims it's to "pay the bills" so he/she can afford to do edgier, budget-deprived projects -- those labors of love.

And on the surface, Robert De Niro (search) seems to fit the profile -- just look at his recent resume: "Meet the Fockers," "Shark Tale," "Analyze That." Critically panned blockbusters, all of 'em.

This weekend, he stars in "Hide and Seek," (search) a thriller about a Manhattan widower who moves upstate with his young daughter (Dakota Fanning (search)) -- and suddenly she's got an imaginary friend.

Sure, it could be the next "Mean Streets" -- but we're not holding our breath.

Just look at the trailer, where Dakota says, "Come out, come out, wherever you are." That's a cheap shot -- a direct knock-off from "Cape Fear."

So, about those quality projects. Where are they?

The last semi-decent film of De Niro's we can remember is 2001's "The Score," with Ed Norton. And the last great De Niro movie? We might be looking all the way back -- past some 20 or 25 very forgettable titles -- to 1991's "Cape Fear."

Fans are wringing their hands in despair at the once-hard-hitting actor's recent penchant for featherweight roles.

"A motion picture that featured Robert De Niro was a film that demanded your attention, for this was an actor of integrity and one who would not insult your intelligence with mediocrity!" ranted one movie buff on the discussion boards for Film Threat magazine.

"So when exactly did that De Niro become the De Niro that has given us such 21st-century gems as ... 'Rocky and Bullwinkle,' 'Showtime,' 'Meet the Parents' and 'Godsend?'

"Why, Robert, why?"

New York casting director Judy Henderson (search) has a very simple explanation: because he wanted to, that's why.

"When I knew him years and years ago, he really was very excited about the work," says Henderson.

"And I think he still is. I don't think he does something just for the money."

Besides, he stays busy behind the scenes, running Tribeca Productions, the company he founded in 1989, and now organizing the Tribeca Film Festival, which he began in 2002.

"It was the next logical step in the evolution of New York as an independent film capital of the world," said the famously interview-shy De Niro at the time.

"And our commitment to the downtown area had never been stronger."

What with all the managerial duties, he could be reluctant to take on a heavy lift: those Jake La Motta-type parts have got to be draining.

"When you have to do serious, heavy, intense things, you put your whole emotional life into a cast," says Henderson. "Maybe there just hasn't been something that he wanted to put himself through emotionally."

Unless you count reading his recent reviews.

Of course, there's also the disturbing possibility that these actually are the best scripts De Niro is getting.

"I guess ... great living directors don't have roles for him," theorizes casting director Stuart Howard. "I think he just wants to work and this is what he's given."

Recently, De Niro began talking about a reunion with Martin Scorsese to make a sequel to the 1976 classic "Taxi Driver."

But given his recent track record, we suggest he lay off the follow-up films -- and instead take a note from some of his contemporaries.

The obvious example is Al Pacino, another method-acting, hot-blooded Italian Oscar-winner.

Sure, he appeared in "Gigli" and co-starred with Colin Farrell in the forgettable "The Recruit," but at least he's doing something to balance them.

"The Merchant of Venice," in which Pacino plays the controversial role of Shylock, may not have gotten stellar reviews, but at least it's Shakespeare.

"If actors take cues from each other," says Howard, "I wish De Niro were going in the direction of Pacino."

Daniel Day-Lewis, an Oscar nominee in 2002 for Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," has a unique approach to his career: he moonlights as a cobbler.

"Daniel Day-Lewis is very special, because he goes away for two years and makes shoes," says Howard. Glamorous it's not, but at least you haven't seen him in any flatulence-joke scenes lately.

British actor Gary Oldman has developed a winning strategy, too: Favor the big moneymakers, but stick to the ones with a shred of artistic dignity. Yes, Oldman appeared in a "Harry Potter" movie -- but it was the Alfonso Cuaron-directed one that was dark and artsy. Then there are Jack Nicholson and Christopher Walken, who are pretty much always the same guy, no matter what movie they're in.

Nicholson might vary it a little -- a tear or two in "About Schmidt" -- but whatever he does, he does it as Jack, which means we love him in it.

And nobody does creepy like Walken -- so whether it's "Annie Hall" or "Kangaroo Jack," he always comes out with his reputation intact. "Nonetheless," says Hollywood Reporter online columnist Martin Grove, in De Niro's defense, "doing stuff like 'Meet the Fockers' is tremendously helpful.

"Even though we look at it and say, this is trivial stuff for a great actor like De Niro -- in the end, that's what puts his name out there. When we're talking about broad moviegoing audiences, they say 'Who's Robert De Niro?' 'He's the guy in "Fockers.'"