I off-handedly mentioned all of the bad choices I’ve made recently the other day – well, I’ve made another one. Other critics (professional critics) have panned Dirty Grandpa: Glenn Kenny said the movie made him “[giggle]… for all of humanity,” Mike Ryan called it “the worst movie I’ve ever seen in a movie theater,” and Matt Singer wrote “I can’t believe how bad this movie is.” Despite the obviously negative message they hope to convey, these quotes only served to make me more curious about the picture – after all I watched and greatly enjoyed last year’s Zac Efron vehicle We Are Your Friends (and I won’t apologize for that), despite near-unanimous antipathy (it was self-aware and critical of the lifestyle it’s characters coveted). My embarrassment at asking for a ticket to Dirty Grandpa at the box office should have been an indicator though that I wasn’t in for a good time in any sense of the word.
Upon the death of his grandmother, young lawyer Jason Kelly (Efron) is guilted into driving his elderly grandfather Dick (Robert De Niro) down to Boca Raton, against the wishes of his overbearing father (Dermot Mulroney) and nagging fiancée (Julianne Hough). It’s only once he has committed to the errand that Jason (and the audience) discover this mourning septuagenarian is actually the titular raunchy patriarch, turning every moment into an opportunity for a dirty joke and looking to get laid now that he’s single again. Along the way the duo run into a hippied-out former classmate of Jason’s, Shadia (Zoey Deutch), and her friends Lenore (Aubrey Plaza) and Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman). Luckily Jason brought a lot of dorky outfits because he and Dick end up following the college students to Daytona Beach, where debauchery and bigotry ensue, all in service of Dick’s pursuit of having sex with a twenty year old.
Richard “Dick” Kelly is quite a character – the type of imaginary archetype about whom the studio executives giddily said “he’s so crass” before excitedly counting their nonexistent profits. After an early scene in which a gloomy and bearded De Niro grieves for his dead wife, we are introduced to the real, masturbatory Dick. He periodically blurts out lines comparing Jason to “the keynote speaker at a butt-fucking convention” or a cognitively disabled individual (left in Dick’s care because otherwise “the raping” would get too bad), sexually harasses every woman he meets, and is an incorrigible racist and homophobe in the face of Bradley’s identity. Everyone loves him for it, though, to the point where Plaza’s Lenore isn’t the only person willing to sleep with the old monster at a moment’s notice. But it’s all okay, director Dan Mazer and writer John Phillips want you to think, because they know it’s wrong. Surely that’s good enough to excuse the movie’s content. Right? Right?
In Dick’s defense, the rest of the characters are just as terribly realized. Efron’s Jason is beholden to his father and future bride, to the extent that he has no identity of his own – which is actually perfect for Efron, who has never been a believable emotional lead when there’s no singing involved – but it’s bad for the movie, which desperately needs some sort of center. Hough’s oppressive Jewish bride-to-be is shrill and paper-thin (and it’s almost offensive that the Mormon Republican is portraying a badgering almost-stereotype, especially in light of her blackface debacle a few years ago). Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson – which isn’t important, just interesting) is called up to care so much – oh, and play a woman of middle-eastern descent. Which she’s not. Poor Aubrey Plaza is objectified throughout the film, serving as a living twerking machine to boost De Niro’s (the character or the actor – who can say?) ego. And Danny Glover drops in for one scene, basically to drop the line “Yeah, fuck him up, Alf.” I actually couldn’t remember if that one scene actually happened or if I fell asleep at one point and nightmare’d it into existence. Even comedy superstars Adam Pally and Jason Mantzoukas are kind of funny but can’t come out of this thing clean. Dirty Grandpa is so dirty, even the good actors get grimy.
They’ll bounce back – they’re mostly young and attractive (I fear Danny Glover may have actually come to the set in a wheelchair and attached to an IV and Mazer just went with it), but one definitely leaves the experience feeling bad for De Niro. The 72-year-old actor commits to the role, I suppose, but it’s a truly repulsive display. I’m not sure how much of this De Niro improvised versus how many of these precious words were put on the page by Phillips, but either option is a sad consideration. I’m not happy with imagining De Niro sadly reciting pre-written vulgarities or with believing that all of the “hilarious” references to Jason fellating phalluses of various shapes and sizes arose extemporaneously from his mind. Both options suggest an aging performer struggling to appear vital and relevant in an evolving entertainment industry. Regardless of how you feel about the recent works of David O. Russell, at least he’s never asked the actor to do any of this.
To add insult to injury, the movie then has the temerity to make attempts at resonance. If you’re going to include a shot of Robert De Niro jerking off to hardcore porn in the first ten minutes of your movie, I don’t think you’re really going to earn those heartfelt moments in your picture’s third act. That doesn’t stop Mazer and the crew from attempting to mine emotion out of ideas like coming to terms with impending death, discovering the hidden aspects of god-like parental figures that you’ll never really know, and of course finding your true self for the first time. The latter especially gets a lot of focus toward the end, as Efron’s Jason struggles to define himself outside of the context of his dad or his future wife, but the movie can’t even stick that landing; at its conclusion, the ostensibly liberated Jason is still living a life designated by other people – he has just switched the old models out for new idols.
There is so much wrong with Dirty Grandpa that I feel like this messy review can really only scratch the surface, from obvious music cues to terrible photoshop to tortured dialogue in service of jokes that aren’t funny (a kid says the phrase “he let me stroke it” in reference to a stuffed animal possessed by Efron – three guesses as to what the kid’s dad thinks he’s talking about) to featuring a gay black character who exists only to be ridiculed and/or threatened to killing what few jokes it does manage to execute well through endless repetition. The movie itself isn’t even interested in its own ending, with the actors and even the cinematographer just going through the motions through a seemingly endless mid-credits scene. It could be a performance art piece if every aspect of the picture weren’t so inept. Critical film studies students will be writing papers about Dirty Grandpa for years to come – much to the cast’s collective chagrin, I’m sure. Because if I was embarrassed just to buy a ticket for this thing, imagine how they felt making it.
Dirty Grandpa receives one out of five terrible examples of a marketing campaign:
Is January over yet?