“Hey, it’s your funeral”
That’s essentially what my best friend and film confidante said when I told her I wanted to see Robert De Niro and Zac Effron’s buddy comedy Dirty Grandpa. It’s Robert De Niro playing a dirty old man, and the seemingly omnipresent TV commercials always made me smirk. This could be great. Predictable as hell, sure. You’re fairly certain it’ll end with the grandpa (named Dick Kelly, btw) having taught the grandson (named Jason) a lesson about carpe diem, thus preventing an impending marriage to a monstrous fiance (Julianne Hough). However, along the way they’re going to have some R-rated comedy misadventures, the grandpa tricking the grandson into taking him to Daytona Beach, Florida to act as his wingman as he trolls for Spring Breaking college girls with obvious daddy (or granddaddy) issues.
It’s kind of like Scent of a Woman as told by The Farrelly Brothers, with De Niro stepping in for Pacino and Efron for Chris O’Donnell. I’d watch that.
My friend, on the other hand, would not. Upon learning of my genuine excitement about this apparently detestable film, she quickly informed me that it had not been screened for critics, always the last resort taken by a studio which knows it has a turkey on its hands. My enthusiasm took a hit.
Once the critics paid to see Dirty Grandpa their reviews were easily the harshest leveled against any 2016 film. The Hollywood Reporter cut to the chase:
Humor, it must be acknowledged, is entirely subjective. What some people find hilarious, others find rude, even offensive. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that … wait, never mind. Forget all that. It can be definitively stated that Dirty Grandpa is utterly unfunny. Or, you could say it’s as funny as child molestation, a subject which, incidentally, inspires one of its least tasteful gags.
Their closing paragraph also set the tone for pretty much every other review out there:
Whether he needs the money, simply loves to work, or has a strong desire to connect with a younger audience, De Niro really needs to rethink his career priorities. It’s fine for this brilliant actor to indulge his considerable comic gifts, but if he keeps doing crap like this he threatens to undo a legacy forged over decades.
On some level, it’s Sally Field in Say It Isn’t So all over again. In that 2002 Chris Klein/Heather Graham comedy, a dude falls in love with a girl only to find out she’s actually his sister…only to then discover out that she’s NOT his sister! Sally Field plays one-half of the girl’s despicable parents (along with Richard Jenkins), and she’s a scheming, money-grubbing con woman with rather frank sexual impulses.
Regardless of the merits of Field’s actual performance, it seemed to be universally agreed at the time that the material was so far beneath her it might as well have been on the complete opposite side of the planet. It was sad to see Field debasing herself.
Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never seen Say It Isn’t So because everyone said it was terrible, and history seemed like it was repeating itself with Dirty Grandpa. All of the reviews functioned more like angry public service announcements warning the impressionable population of the world that under no circumstance should they go and see Dirty Grandpa. Headline after headline followed Deadline’s lead: “The Worst Film of Robert De Niro’s Career.” IndieWire at least phrased the statement as a question, “Is Dirty Grandpa The Worst Film of De Niro’s Career?” ScreenCrush solemnly declared “I Can’t Believe How Bad This Movie Is.”
Suddenly, Dirty Grandpa looked like a challenge. In the history of this site, I have never reviewed a movie I absolutely hated because in the age of RottenTomatoes it is remarkably easy to self-select out of ever seeing truly awful movies. However, if Dirty Grandpa is truly so terrible maybe I could see it and come back to my readers with a really funny rant about how much I despised every frame of this steaming pile of excrement that can only on the most technical level be referred to as a “film.” BBC film critic Mark Kermode is legendary for his rants. It could be fun to do one of those.
Yet, as I sat in a surprisingly half-full theater yesterday afternoon, I still held out hope that Dirty Grandpa might be that funny little R-rated comedy I hoped for based on the trailers.
The hint that the critics might have been right, though, was apparent from the astonishingly atrocious photo-shopping on display in the film’s opening montage of old family photos depicting De Niro’s grandpa and Efron’s grandson from the hospital room to the college graduation stage. The phrase “A 12-year-old girl with a smartphone could have done a better job than that” sprung to mind.
A bad first impression, sure, but look at the names of all the co-stars flying by in the opening credits.
Adam Pally? Loved him in Happy Endings.
Jason Mantzoukas? Always hilarious on the podcast How Did This Get Made? and usually reliable for a laugh as the increasingly insane Rafi on The League.
With that much talent, there’s bound to be a funny moment or two. After all, as the AVClub argued, “De Niro can still bite into subpar dialogue with gusto, especially when he’s given more profanities and vulgarities than he’s uttered in years, maybe reaching back to the late ’90s.”
However, you sense that such optimism is misplaced because as the movie goes through the motions of setting up its bare bones plot you realize none of the jokes are landing, not Adam Pally’s (as the family’s weird cousin) explanation of his hands-on approach to breeding small and big dogs nor De Niro’s non-stop references to Efron’s pink car (technically his fiance’s car) being like a vagina.
The biggest laugh you might get is from watching Zac Efron throwing around legal terms like he knows what he’s talking about. His character works as a corporate lawyer for his dad (Mulroney), much to his grandpa’s disappointment since he remembers a time when his grandson wanted to be a photographer. When Efron refers to his law work he always uses the same line (something about LFPs and SCCs), less committed with each re-telling, indicating his heart’s not actually in it. However, it’s difficult to even buy Efron as a lawyer in the first place simply because it’s difficult to ever buy Efron as anything. Again, deferring to the AV Club: “[Efron] plays Jason with the same moist-eyed blandness he brings to romantic comedies or DJ dramas, miles from the winning riff on that persona he performed in Neighbors.”
It is up to De Niro to carry the film, and, well, he’s De Niro. He knows how to deliver a line. This schtick he’s stuck with, playing a combative, foul-mouthed old man, might have lost any sense of freshness a couple of Alan Arkin movies ago, but he commits to it like crazy. He’s given such a non-stop barrage of vitriolic one-liners that some of them eventually land, even as John Phillips’ script saddles him with some of the worst Judd Apatow-imitation dialogue you could imagine.
Most of the various supporting performers similarly riff with such frequency that a couple of laughs surprisingly sneak through. Jason Mantzoukas, as a Daytona Beach drug dealer, basically plays Rafi from The League again, and his ongoing optimism in the face of insane circumstance yields some smirks. Mo Collins and Henry Zebrowski, as oddly corrupt local cops, sorta, kinda amuse with their intolerance for any criminals other than Mantzoukas’ character, who they just can’t stay mad at. Aubrey Plaza, as the girl with the hots for grandpa, is relentlessly hyper-sexual, yet also oddly detached, as if Plaza’s performance is an ironic mockery of the role as written. Her awkward attempts at old-person dirty talk (e.g., “Snap my bra off like you’re ripping open a social security check”/”Tell me about how much nicer this neighborhood used to be”) are easily the best jokes in the movie.
What this film ultimately feels like, though, is an attempt to call back to The Farrelly Brothers’ late-90s reign without having any idea how to actually do that. It’s not quite a gross-out comedy (There’s Something About Mary) nor is it quite a dumb comedy (Dumb and Dumber), and its attempts to undercut the hate with emotional bonding come off as awkward. Director Dan Mazer isn’t particularly adept at filming conversation scenes or high jinx comedy action sequences, which pretty much covers this entire film. Screenwriter John Phillips mistakenly believes bad words are inherently funny, no matter how many times you use them, and he has no idea how to create characters who sound like humans instead of sitcom-esque spigots for catch phrase wannabe one-liners.
That could be partially forgiven if the jokes were funny, but so many of the comedy setpieces fall flat. A visit to an old folks home where Danny Glover claims he wants Efron to “blowjob him to death,” and a misunderstanding on the Florida beach where a concerned father believes Efron has sexually assaulted his young son immediately come to mind. De Niro’s commitment to the title role along with the sprinkling of improv comedians on the periphery ensures that there are a couple of laughs, but that’s not nearly enough.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Is this the worst film of De Niro’s career? I don’t know. I haven’t seen everything in his 100+ filmography.
Is it truly as bad as everyone says? That depends. Are you, like me, a Jason Mantouzkas fan? If so, Dirty Grandpa has its moments. Similarly, are you intrigued by the ongoing enigma that is Aubrey Plaza? If so, her Dirty Grandpa performance is a fascinating thing to figure out. If none of that applies to you, though, then, yeah, this is as bad as you’ve probably heard.
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