There was a time, many years ago, when I considered Robert De Niro to be my favourite actor, a time when I would readily buy up DVDs of older movies of his purely because he happened to be starring in them. I subconsciously decided that one of my cinephile goals was to ultimately have seen every De Niro film. Well, as any (former?) fan of the legendary actor knows, he stopped caring about the quality of films he appears in about fifteen years ago, whilst considerably increasing his output. De Niro completists such as myself have had to endure watching this once-icon of screen acting waste both his and the audience’s time in numerous films varying from mediocre to terrible, but never before has one of his new movies seemed so immediately off-putting as Dirty Grandpa.
Honestly, the title alone makes it sound like piece if niche porn. It’s as if De Niro’s daring his long-time fans into finally just giving up.
I had already heard some fairly terrible things about Dirty Grandpa before I got a chance to see it and to be honest, I feared the worst. After a brief opening in which De Niro’s character is at the funeral of his wife, we’re treated to scene in which his grandson (Zac Efron) arrives to collect him from his home only to walk in on him unapologetically masturbating in the nude on his living room sofa. Upon viewing this, it looked like this comedy was going to be every bit the horror-show I was afraid it would be.
That brings me to the only potentially good news I can bring you regarding Dirty Grandpa, the aforementioned scene is about as bad as it gets for De Niro in this movie. Sure he’s pervy and crude throughout, but soon morphs into essentially playing a more foul-mouthed version of his Meet the Parents character (he has some mysterious military background here too that comes into play). He also possesses a reasonably decent rapport with Efron that works well enough that you could potentially see the two making an amusing pairing if they had a decent script.
Efron is actually saddled with the more embarrassing role of the pair. Once tipped to become a big star following his teenage breakthrough years, Efron’s recently exhibited a pattern of playing comedy characters who are supposed to be endearing to the audience but are in fact quite unpleasant in the likes of That Awkward Moment and Bad Neighbours. That trend continues here, though he’s playing more of the uptight ‘straight-man’ role. He’s a hard-working young lawyer engaged to a woman (Julianne Hough) whom he treats pretty poorly, a fact that the film cheaply wishes to excuse by having her be very demanding.
Efron winds up taking his grandpa to Daytona beach for a spring break weekend, where the majority of the film takes place. Hijinks ensue, and one swift joke about Efron sexually abusing a child later (honestly, that happens), he winds up humiliated and in jail requiring De Niro to bail him out. There’s then a lot of standard party comedy shenanigans, none of which is particularly funny to begin with, and certainly not aided by the presence of a senior citizen attempting to get drunk and laid with the much younger students.
The most humiliating role turns out not to be Efron’s but poor Aubrey Plaza who winds up playing a young woman who for whatever contrived reason is desperate to sleep with an older college professor, which De Niro of course claims to be. Between this and the excruciatingly bad The To Do List I wonder what is going on with Plaza’s post Parks & Recreation choices.
Only a small recurring appearance from Jason Mantzoukas as a local drug dealer manages to raise a few chuckles in the otherwise crude and fairly cringe-worth attempts at raunchy comedy. Worse still, Efron’s overall arc is an extremely predictable, lazily written romantic comedy plot, all of which is obviously telegraphed from the outset and confirmed the moment a former classmate of his (Zoey Deutch) enters the picture.
There is at least an effort of the part of Dirty Grandpa’s makers to create an outrageous, broad hard-R comedy with a buddy road movie structure surrounding a rom-com com centre, but it fails every step of the way. De Niro’s participation in movies like this just results in it being sadder to watch rather bringing any semblance of quality or prestige to proceedings. As I’ve found myself feeling several times recently after sitting through another awful De Niro film, I just wish him and Martin Scorsese would just finally get around to making this The Irishman movie they’ve been discussing for years.