What’s that nice old man from The Intern doing in a movie like this?
The “nice old man” is a living legend, Robert De Niro, and the movie is Dirty Grandpa, which is largely terrible and nearly laugh-less. And no, that’s not simply because it’s an unscrupulous raunchfest. It’s because it’s an aimless, unfunny raunchfest. Even dirty comedy is an art form, one that must be calibrated just right. But Dirty Grandpa is only interested in chuckling quietly in the corner while a two-time Oscar winner is made to utter all manner of obscenities at random, without point or purpose.
We’ve reached a point in the filmic evolution (or, I suppose, “devolution,” depending on your perspective) where the R-rated comedy is the New Normal. Boisterous, raunchy comedy targeted at adults is an effective – and lucrative – genre all its own. As a result, the shock-and-awe effect of witnessing old folks and/or esteemed thespians uttering curse words has worn terribly thin. Nowadays it’s a stretch to make even a profane Betty White cameo funny, yet the entire purpose of Dirty Grandpa’s existence is to stand De Niro in front of a camera and feed him random vulgarities. It’s a concept that rings false from minute one, wears thin after the first five, and becomes downright intolerable after the next 98.
Of course there’s a saccharine faux-emo reason behind Gramps’ blue streak: His wife has just died, and she told him she wanted him to cut loose after she passed. So, the day after her funeral, retired Army vet Richard “Dick” Kelly (lol, right?) heads to Daytona Beach for Spring Break, with the explicitly stated intent of scoring with a college chick. That’s it – nothing more complicated or nuanced than that. Being the consummate professional that he is, De Niro plays the role precisely as it was intended – as a hollow cipher, a vague idea for a character that has a 50/50 chance of getting past SNL dress rehearsal, delivered with zero narrative believability by the filmmakers and provided only moment-to-moment context by whatever De Niro and his talented co-stars can generate on their own.
Zac Efron leads that grouping, taking on the straight man role to De Niro’s whirling dervish. He’s the grandson, named Jason (classy choice), a former photography student who opted instead for law school – get it, he’s not following his truth – and is now engaged to a domineering socialite (Julianne Hough), so we know he’s also suffered veritable castration at the hands of an evil woman. Gramps picks Jason to drive him to Spring Break because the kid needs to go crazy and reclaim his manhood, natch. A smarter movie – one written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, perhaps – might use the external construct of chest-thumping as the misdirection for unexpected character growth. Not the case in Dirty Grandpa, which, if anything, is about the importance of growing down, into the nastiest gutter of immaturity, and reveling in it.
There are sporadic chuckle-worthy moments, most often the result of obvious well-earned improvs from De Niro, Efron, and especially Aubrey Plaza, playing the object of Gramps’ carnal conquest, whose pitch-perfect deadpan proves she’s in on the joke, even if the movie isn’t. Largely, though, Dirty Grandpa is quite self-descriptive – all about the “dirty,” forgetting that vulgarity without attitude or context isn’t funny. You’d be better served visiting your own grandfather – I promise his stories are plenty filthy, and they’ll leave you in stitches.