We’ve come to Dirty Grandpa because we want to see Robert De Niro behaving badly. What other reasons would he have? He plays the cheekily-named Dick Kelly, a former army mechanic who spent his adult life as a faithfully-married man, including 15 celibate postmenopausal years. But now that his wife has passed away, Dick’s primary concern is ensuring that his dick doesn’t meet the same fate. He sets off for Daytona Beach in search of random coeds and “vag-eye-nal sex,” pronouncing that phrase in the iconic De Niro diction, with all the vowels dragged out and overemphasized. And the camera makes a game of hanging on the actor’s most recognizable expressions, like the way that his frown looks like the letter “U” turned upside-down. So the joke is not that this old man is a poon hound—the joke is that this poon hound is being played by Robert De Niro. Maybe the actor found artistic fulfillment in this project, but there’s a sense of schadenfreude to the whole scenario anyway: We’re here to watch an institution get defaced. This is barely a movie. It’s more like graffiti.
Grandpa, which is directed by Dan Mazer and written by John Phillips, is built on a base that’s even older than its star. It’s your standard “straight man/funny man” buddy-comedy movie, with Dick dragging his grandson Jason (Zac Efron) along on the Daytona trip as his studly wingman. Efron is playing the epitome of the “uptight-young-man” archetype: He’s a hottie hiding under a white collar (he handles SEC compliance at a law firm operated by his domineering dad) who’s being weighed down by his engagement ring (his fiancée, played as a parody of shrewish female characters by a game Julianne Hough, demands that Jason work on their wedding plans even through the duration of his own grandmother’s funeral).The only spin put on the subgenre is that Dick gets to be both manic and suave; if this were a Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin movie, he’d be playing both roles. So all that Zac Efron gets to be is boring. The narrative has framed his blandness as being the unfortunate effect of two insidious influences: his job, and his wife. Dirty Grandpa positions itself thusly: “straight white men want to have more fun—won’t you let them?” Even the subtext of this movie is elderly.
That’s a theme we’ve seen often in the decades since Revenge of the Nerds and American Pie. These are all gross-out comedies about white men who need to reclaim their own sexual agency—if you learned about America from our comedies, you’d think that straight white boys represented an oppressed race. That’s an impression made worse by a second one: our studio comedies have ceased to care about the lives of women during the same timeframe. To wit, Dirty Grandpa offers us two “female leads,” and crafts them each to match the extremely banal desires of their male counterparts. For Jason, there’s Shadia (Zoey Deutch,) a fun-loving hippie-type who opposes his buttoned-down existence. And for Dick, there’s Lenore (Aubrey Plaza,) who’s been searching for a horny octogenarian so that she can check off the “old man” box on her sexual to-do list. In other words: to the straight man a Madonna, and to the comic relief a whore. This movie wants to promise new heights of cinematic debauchery, but these are the same formulaic lows we’ve always known.
The targets of the comedy, as per usual, are a lineup of women, minorities, and other marginalized social figures. Extended comic set pieces depict Dick’s utter dominance over African-Americans (he beats up an entire crew of them, then becomes their friend so he can freely say “n**ger,”) his molestation of women (at a golf course, in between holes,) and his unapologetic homophobia (“holy shit,” is the setup line after his character hears a particularly effeminate voice, and “you’re really gay” is the searing punchline.) Another standard of the contemporary Hollywood comedy, “unexamined homoeroticism,” also makes itself known: Dick is constantly shoving his thumb up his grandson’s asshole as a prank—it’s the closest thing this movie has to a running joke, even though it can barely jog. This is positioned as “bad taste cinema,” but that thumb is all that Dirty Grandpa’s got: just a little poke. If you’re going to offend me, it’s going to take more than outdated rape jokes and half-clothed Aubrey Plaza sex scenes.
And that might be Dirty Grandpa’s most egregious sin: for all its ostentatious misbehavior, for all its show-offy slurs, for all its performative filthiness, this movie is totally fucking ordinary. Standard romantic-comedy narrative beats intrude more often than bare breasts: there are secret family histories (Dick was actually a Green Beret,) suitors who lie about their provenance (Jason convinces Shadia he’s a bit of a hippie as well,) unnecessary and incoherently-edited action sequences (the movie can’t even properly depict the act of chugging a beer,) a tear-stained breakup at the end of the second act (complete with sad guitar music,) and a half-assed resolution to tie the whole thing together (“Good, we’re all made up now” is the line that De Niro drops after one such instance—said like a man who’d rather be at a Knicks game.)
It’s a structure thinner than the models who populate the film’s anonymously-directed compositions. And all that generic craftsmanship is in place to service improv-heavy acting that repeats itself at each turn: first Jason’s a “Mitt Romney-style Terminator,” then he’s a “cockblocking terminator”; he’s Dick’s “lesbian nurse,” then later he’s the “lesbian daughter.” Dirty Grandpa can’t help but invoke Bad Grandpa, the Jackass movie that dressed up Johnny Knoxville as an 80-year-old to similar thematic ends. Sneer all you want, but Jackass represents the comedic cinema I desire more of: manic, anarchic, formally playful, rhythmic in its editing, footloose in its structure. We might defer to blaming Robert De Niro for this late-period turn towards the lowbrow—but it’s the makeup of the content that’s leaving him underserved, not the genre. Dirty Grandpa may indeed represent the apotheosis of a certain kind of narrowly-minded, improv-heavy Apatow-adjacent comedy. There are much better ways to be a jackass.
DIRTY GRANDPA. RATED R. NOW PLAYING EVERYWHERE.