It’s easy enough to understand why Dirty Grandpa has drawn so much critical ire. In our modern age of sensitivity and cultural awareness, there would seem to be little room for the story of a vulgar septuagenarian who seemingly goes out of his way to violate every sacred cow of political correctness. But it leaves one to wonder if this film would have been so universally panned had Robert De Niro not been involved. Granted, the film is nonsensical, its direction somewhat amateurish, the story almost nonexistent, and the less said about its narrative structure and character development the better. However, I did laugh on a number of occasions, which counts for something when addressing a film that has generated as much animosity as Dirty Grandpa.
De Niro’s performance is essentially his depiction of the unrestrained id, a hyper-masculine representation of age-inappropriate virility and competency in the achievement of his one-track goal, sowing wild oats in his seventies. In this capacity, Zac Efron plays straight-man, a 21st century Zeppo Marx to De Niro’s aged Groucho/Harpo hybrid. And just as in a good Marx Brothers picture, Dirty Grandpa works best when the story gets out of the way and allows its leads an open playing field. The film falters significantly when it allows Efron too much solo screen time, and even more so when it tries to connect back to its lame excuse for a plot or attempts to convey any sort of moral or message. Those decrying De Niro’s performance as a career nadir are clearly looking at the highly objectionable subject matter and not at the work he put on the screen, which is as strong as any of his late-period comedies.
Lest this review come across as a defense of what is, in essence, a pretty bad film, there are plenty of valid objections to Dirty Grandpa beyond its crass humor, anachronistic racism and casual sexism. Aubrey Plaza is all but wasted as a one-note joke, which she plays to the hilt and to great effect, but I would’ve rather seen her take over at least 60 percent of Efron’s screen time. Also, De Niro’s character is written as being preternaturally well-informed on contemporary popular culture, which makes no sense whatsoever. Most damningly, the film attempts to hedge its bets with the inclusion of a fight scene in which De Niro roughs up a gang of young hoodlums in defense of a gay acquaintance, after which he forces the gang’s lead to mouth what I can only imagine must be an exculpatory monologue the filmmakers prepared for themselves on their inevitable march to the pillory of Hollywood press junkets.
This is by no means a good film, but it’s not nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be. But unlike the controlled chaos of the Marx Brothers, Dirty Grandpa is often unrestrained and self-indulgent in the worst possible ways. Gags that don’t work are allowed to play out interminably, bizarre set pieces that contribute nothing to the picture as a whole are given far too much screen time, and its treatment of women and minorities is indeed cringe-inducing. But those who appreciate humor that challenges rather than reaffirms their worldview might find themselves chuckling a little harder than would be deemed socially acceptable. The film could be read on some level as a piece of performance art or social commentary, an epic trolling of the PC police and De Niro’s detractors, all of whom could stand to take themselves (quite) a bit less seriously. That reading might be giving the filmmakers too much credit, but those villagers who have broken out the torches and pitchforks should bear in mind that this is not even the worst Spring Break movie I’ve ever seen (that would be 2012’s Spring Breakers), much less the worst De Niro picture (Little Fockers). So for those intrepid souls willing to sit through what largely amounts to an overlong dick joke, give Dirty Grandpa a shot, you might be pleasantly surprised at least as often as you’re horribly disappointed, which is not bad for January at the movies. Rated R for crude sexual content throughout, graphic nudity and for language and drug use.