The would-be comic conceit of a foul-mouthed old person is, at this point, only slightly younger than the ability to depict foul-mouthed characters in cinema. The fact that anyone would consider this sort of character a shocking yet hilarious delight is almost inherently anti-comedic; it’s hard to laugh from inside the deep depression caused by smug faux-edginess. Yet having acting legend Robert De Niro play a recently widowed and extremely foul-mouthed senior citizen—basically the Johnny Knoxville role in Bad Grandpa minus the prosthetics and performance art—is not necessarily the automatic travesty some would suggest.
For one thing, De Niro can still bite into subpar dialogue with gusto, especially when he’s given more profanities and vulgarities than he’s uttered in years, maybe reaching back to the late ’90s. For another, a movie like Dirty Grandpa—where even the title is a ripoff of another movie—gives a 72-year-old actor a starring role in a broad comedy. Would-be protectors of De Niro’s legacy tend not to acknowledge the realities of remaining a working actor into old age, especially without resorting exclusively to character parts.
It would be easier to defend De Niro’s oft-underrated late-period work if he picked better raunchy comedies than this one. He plays Dick Kelly, a seemingly gentle old man who cajoles his lawyer grandson Jason (Zac Efron) into driving him down to Boca Raton. But when a reluctant Jason arrives to pick up his grandfather, he finds, yes, a foul-mouthed old person who wants to take full advantage of his newfound widower status by getting laid on spring break. Jason wants (or, in the style of the live-a-little buddy comedy, thinks he wants) to get back home to the demanding girlfriend he’s marrying in a week. But when Jason and Dick bump into a group of college kids led by Jason’s old acquaintance Shadia (Zoey Deutch, the latest actress tasked with pretending to find Efron-issued banter funny) and the sexually voracious Lenore (Aubrey Plaza), Dick insists on prolonging the trip. And the movie.
Director Dan Mazer has written for a variety of Sacha Baron Cohen projects, and here seems to be aiming for a similar brand of mischievous shock comedy; Dirty Grandpa does go much further than fans of milder De Niro shenanigans like Last Vegas or Little Fockers might expect (if those fans do indeed exist). But Mazer isn’t the credited screenwriter here, and basic tasks like a five-character dialogue scene (a mess of actor-dividing cuts) appear to keep him more than occupied. Even the basic work of assembling mock-dramatic close-ups in a party montage feels botched, barely keeping the characters in frame long enough for any visual gags to register, and rendering a simple drinking game weirdly hard to follow.
Meanwhile, would-be shock bombs keep going off with deadening consistency. Screenwriter John Phillips attempts to invent memorably profane dialogue and piles on the poor-man’s-Apatow insult-reference names, both with about a 10-percent success rate. He goes through these reference monikers so fast that two different characters refer to Efron as Terminator-like, once modified by “Mitt Romney” and once by “cockblocking.” If only the determination ascribed to Efron had any comic bite; he plays Jason with the same moist-eyed blandness he brings to romantic comedies or DJ dramas, miles from the winning riff on that persona he performed in Neighbors.
Efron is supposed to have buddy chemistry with De Niro, but the only sparks in the movie come from De Niro’s flirtation with Aubrey Plaza. More than anyone else in the cast, Plaza embraces the fact that she’s playing a ridiculous construct issuing filthy, sometimes absurdist one-liners and rejoinders—a non-character who might as well disappear in a puff of smoke every time she’s out of frame. Plaza’s seeming contempt for the project energizes her performance, and her scene partner; she and De Niro appear ready to run away together into a better movie.
Apart from Plaza, the movie is funniest when portraying Florida as a lawless dirtbag playground. This is only a minor thread, though; the filmmakers seem more eager to give Dick permission to gay-bash and use racial slurs through a series of mostly inexplicable and unfunny plot turns. While Mazer and Phillips focus on these convolutions, the movie’s stupid mistakes pile up. Some are minor but persistent, like the way photography enthusiasts Jason and Shadia speak reverently of Time magazine when it seems like they actually mean Life. Others are more distracting, like a weird, sloppy time compression that has heavy wedding planning, an actual wedding, spring break, and college graduation all taking place within a single week in March. All of the worst bits—a cartoonishly villainous fiancée, Jason’s clumsily developed interest in photography, Dick’s apparent invincibility—come together for an insanely drawn-out wedding-disruption scene so agonizingly long and terribly blocked that it almost works as experimental parody.
That incompetence combined with the occasional burst of disreputable laughter makes Dirty Grandpa oddly lively for a movie that’s largely terrible. There’s a certain perverse brilliance, however accidental, to a movie that creates a longing for a foulmouthed Aubrey Plaza/Robert De Niro romcom.