When I was a young teenager just getting into film, Robert De Niro was my favourite actor. I suspect it’s like that for a lot of budding cinephiles coming up in the video store era: you watch all of the gangster movies that open up a brand new world of possibilities, you pick a favourite between De Niro and Pacino and you let that guide you through your cinephile life. I preferred De Niro: he was calmer and felt more dangerous, came across as a more complex good guy and a more nefarious bad guy, depending on the situation. I watched any De Niro movie that I could get my hands on at the time, but looking back, it seems clear to me that in the entirety of my adult life, he’s has done very little that I actually enjoyed. Most of the actors that I was taught to love early on were already past their prime, but De Niro has done more consistently lazy work in a stream of more generic films than nearly anyone else.
All this to say that it’s not too surprising that De Niro would headline a post-Hangover Spring Break boner jam comedy in this day and age, but it still feels wrong, somehow. I’ve long grown to accept that no one is above slumming it and that roles for actors in their 70s aren’t necessarily as rich and diverse as you would hope. Still, the casting of De Niro in Dan Mazer’s Dirty Grandpa proves to be a bit of a coup for how surprising the sight of him jerking off, teabagging his grandson or grinding up on a college student proves to be. Even stranger still: De Niro seems to actually be trying hard here.
After the death of his grandmother, buttoned-up lawyer Jason (Zac Efron) is tasked with driving his grieving grandfather Dick (De Niro) to Boca Raton to partake in the yearly tradition he used to share with his wife. Time is tight as Jason is a week from being married to uptight Jewish-American princess Meredith (Julianne Hough) and he barely has the time to spare. His plans, of course, go tits-up when his grieving grandfather seems to have been repressing all of his foul-mouthed, bigoted, bourbon-swilling, porn-watching, dick-swinging, cigar-chomping horndog urges. A chance encounter with a free-spirited former classmate of Jason’s named Shadia (Zoey Deutch) and her old-man-loving friend Lenore (Aubrey Plaza) deviate the road trip towards Daytona Beach, where Jason learns that his dream of becoming a globe-trotting photographer still burns deep inside him and Dick learns that he’s definitely still got it.
Much of Dirty Grandpa will seem familiar to anyone who’s seen a raunchy comedy in the last 10 years. The subplot about Jason’s fiancé is lifted wholesale from the first Hangover film, for example, as are the party sequences where Efron mistakenly smokes crack while clad only in a thong shaped like a stuffed bee and the inevitable slideshow of embarrassing pictures. It even culminates in one of those “you have to tell her” madcap highway chases that are so popular in movies like this. It’s the kind of movie where an old man doing a karaoke version of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” isn’t just a joke, it’s an entire fucking set-piece.
Dirty Grandpa therefore places almost all of the burden on the shoulders of its leads; Efron and De Niro are tasked with making this warmed-over stew of dick jokes and pratfalls not only palatable but actually funny. Efron’s been making great progress as a comedic leading man (although We Are Your Friends wasn’t supposed to be funny) and he shows that he can also do the buttoned-down milquetoast thing here without embarrassing himself too much. Really, though, it’s De Niro’s show — and does he ever know it.
The character of Dick as he’s written sits somewhere between Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, De Niro’s own character in Meet the Parents and a guy shitting out terrible, heavily-artifacted memes on Instagram. He’s completely implausible as a character (don’t think there are too many 72-year-olds who make jokes about Queen Latifah shitting in their mouths and also listen exclusively to Sinatra) but the way De Niro tears into this dialogue has the kind of gusto he hasn’t put forth in essentially my entire adult life. It’s not a good performance, per se; when De Niro dies, I don’t expect the scene where he comments on his grandson’s dick (“You have my dick — not the girth, not the length, but the style”) to be part of the reel, but it’s extremely refreshing to see the guy do a little more than show up and say the lines.
Dirty Grandpa is a profoundly stupid movie, filled with puerile stereotypes and toilet humour and broad-side-of-a-barn cheap shots that anyone can see coming from a mile away. It gets most of its gags and premises from other movies that, if not necessarily better, were undeniably there first. It is not a movie that I will look back on fondly, most likely because it’s already started to melt into the primordial soup of jizz jokes and thumbs-up-the-butt that I’ve gleaned from films like this over the years. What I can’t deny, however, is that it made me laugh. Sheepishly, perhaps, and certainly many of its laughs come from the sheer incomprehension of watching De Niro rattle off nonsense about donkey punches and Jodeci — but a laugh’s a laugh. ■
Dirty Grandpa opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 22. Watch the trailer here: