Here's the one thing that surprised me about Dirty Grandpa: the movie has something serious on its mind. Deep down, beneath all of the mindless raunchiness, sloppy plotting and bombastic party music, there's a kind-of affecting acknowledgment of the idea that getting old can be terrifying. It's the story of a man who sees shameless debauchery as the only hope of escape: rather than confronting his old age, he desperately reignites youthful impulses and retreats to them. That's potent stuff, even if the follow-up point the film delivers is dumb. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the film is so unbearable that we've lost all interest by the time the movie decides it has something to say.
The film's early scenes rush us through some obligatory plotting, as the filmmakers are eager to get to the parts where Dirty Grandpa does Dirty Grandpa stuff. Jason Kelly (Zac Efron, High School Musical) is a young attorney with a promising career and an oh-so-respectable fiancee (Julianne Hough, Safe Haven). He wears bland, conservative clothes and tosses around lots of fancy legal jargon while he's making small talk. His grandfather is Richard “Dick” Kelly (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver) who has just lost his wife of forty years. After the funeral, Dick requests that Jason drive him down to Boca Raton for the weekend. Jason is in the middle of work projects and wedding preparations, but how can he turn down a request made by his grieving grandfather?
When he's ready to hit the road, Jason wanders into Dick's living room... and finds Dick furiously masturbating to porn. Dick doesn't seem even a little bit bothered by the notion of his grandson walking in on him. “I'll be done in just a minute,” he declares, bellowing with pleasure as he wraps things up. Oscar-winner Robert De Niro, ladies and gentlemen! Jason looks on in horror. So it goes for the next hour and a half, with De Niro engaging in all sorts of pervy behavior and Efron serving up bewildered reaction shots.
It's bad enough that much of the film's humor is built around a lazy, “haha, look at the old guy acting like a horny frat bro” joke, but the film makes things considerably worse with the unimaginative, unconvincing way it sets up its jokes. An example: in one of the film's first scenes, Efron's pot-smoking cousin Nick (Adam Pally, The Mindy Project) drops by the funeral parlor to pay his respects to Dick's late wife. He wanders over to the coffin, and immediately launches into what feels like a mostly-improvised riff on how the woman was probably murdered by some sinister cabal, how cancer doesn't actually kill people and how 9/11 was a conspiracy. Then, he starts blowing clouds of pot smoke at the old woman's portrait. It all just sort of comes out of nowhere, and it's played so broadly that it never feels even remotely rooted in actual human behavior.
That happens time and time again, as we stumble from one unpersuasively-staged comic setpiece into another: multiple trips to prison (cue rape jokes), a “flex-off” contest (cue lame R-rated insults being hurled around), a karaoke party (cue De Niro singing hip-hop numbers), a rehearsal dinner (cue a slideshow of horrifying photos). The low point is probably a gag involving a nearly-nude Efron, a plush bee and a string of unsavory pedophilia jokes. The problem isn't that the material is too offensive, it's that it's staged with all of the clumsy vomit-up-the-joke elegance of a Friedberg/Seltzer picture.
Dirty Grandpa is easily some of the worst material Robert De Niro has ever been given (and that's saying something), but let it be said that the actor seems to be doing everything in his power to make it work. Yes, the lines are unfunny – at times the screenplay feels like a transcription of a satellite radio shock jock's verbal diarrhea – but De Niro delivers them with gleeful vigor. The film as a whole feels like a “paycheck project,” but the performance doesn't feel as if it's being delivered by a man who only wants to do the bare minimum and go home. Efron is passable (he has respectable comic instincts, but the film gives him nowhere to go), too, but most of the supporting players are obnoxious stereotypes. One exception: Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), who takes an absurd part (a college girl who lusts after De Niro) and makes it bizarrely funny.
Back to those serious themes the film eventually acknowledges: there's something kind of sad about the way the film seriously considers Dick's desperate filthiness, yet ultimately embraces it. We recognize that Dick's behavior is ultimately a cry of despair; the behavior of a man trying to make up for lost time (as Dick puts it: “I haven't had sex in fifteen years... I want to f--- f--- f--- f--- f---!”). What's interesting is that the film doesn't really seem to regard the character's desperation as fundamentally tragic: Dick is gonna f--- his way to contentment. Dirty Grandpa depicts a world in which the only way to find happiness is to take what you want at the expense of everyone else. It's an unintentionally depressing idea delivered by an unintentionally depressing movie.
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2016