What’s old is new again – so it goes in Hollywood, with its seemingly infinite assembly line of remakes and reboots, and so it goes in Dirty Grandpa, the latest in a strange string of comedies all revolving around older men who leer after much younger women as part of one last, inherently sexual blaze of glory before succumbing to senility (the term Viagra cinema has been bandied around over the years, mostly to describe Sylvester Stallone’s continued residence in action schlock territory, but it certainly fits here).
There’s nothing to the inescapably pervy plot of Dirty Grandpa that you won’t get from a poster or TV spot – elderly widower Dick (Robert De Niro, continuing his career’s inexplicably controlled flight into terrain, and yes, his character’s name is actually Dick) tricks his about-to-be-married lawyer grandson Jason (Zac Efron) into driving him down to Daytona Beach, Florida’s wildest spring break destination. Why, you ask? So he can chase after all the comely college girls he’s been kept from chasing after by decades of marital fidelity. Let the skirt-chasing commence!
That’s all the narrative setup Dirty Grandpa seems to think it needs – it’s as if execs saw Efron channeling De Niro in that one scene from Neighbors and were so desperate to get the pair together on screen that they settled on “raunchy road-trip comedy” as a placeholder, then forgot to fill in the actual story before rolling cameras. Wait – that’s exactly what happened.
What little script there is, from John Philips, moves from story beat from story beat with about as much elegance as you’d expect from a movie titled Dirty Grandpa, riddling every line of dialogue with a barrage of sexist, racist, homophobic and generally unpleasant digs (the vast majority lobbed by Dick like hand grenades in Jason’s direction). From recurring gags (the pair have to drive Jason’s fiancée’s pink Mini Cooper down to Florida – but how can their masculinity survive?) to lightning-fast quips (“One in three of these girls have herpes – even if you can’t see it,” Jason says of Daytona’s bikini babes), this movie’s one-track mind is unshakable.
Anyone hoping that the presence of a revered big-screen legend like De Niro might bring a jolt of self-awareness to the proceedings is sorely mistaken. It’s more than a little creepy how comfortable the Oscar winner seems with staggering, erection first, after every woman in sight – especially kinky coed Lenore (Aubrey Plaza, overacting and loving it as the ditzy sexpot character she’s so successfully avoided playing on television and the indie circuit up until this point), who has a thing for older men. Dirty Grandpa isn’t a clever riff on a sex comedy, done by smart actors – it’s the barest-bones version of a sex comedy, done by actors who know much better.
But then again, the apparent target audience for this comedy won’t care one bit – Dirty Grandpa is directly targeting misogynistic, booze-cruising dudes who want to objectify and denigrate women as openly as Dick does, without repercussions. The lion’s share of its jokes revolve around Dick trying to get some, verbally and physically abusing Jason for not trying to get some, and the eye-rollingly game women who just want Dick to get some. Most of these lines grow old before the duo even reach Daytona, by which time the movie is only just getting started.
For all its 102 minutes, Dirty Grandpa goes precisely where you think it will – to the beach, where the two pair off with beautiful coeds (Dick flirts with Lenore, while Jason reconnects with winsome classmate Shadia, played by the luminous Zoey Deutch); to the parties, where Jason accidentally smokes crack; to the clubs, where they run afoul of an offensively depicted gangbanger (Brandon Mychal Smith, who deserves far better vehicles for his comedic gifts); and, of course, to the jail cells, where Jason befriends a drug dealer (Jason Mantzoukas) who has endeared himself to the hilariously inept law enforcement officers.
Occasionally, it brandishes some funny one-liners and embarks on some entertaining tangents (“This entire state is licensed as a gun range!” Mantzoukas’ character says of Florida during a memorable introduction). And though the script is about as low-brow as they come, the actors are at least committed, with Efron totally nailing Jason’s panic and drug-induced confusion (even if no one will buy him as a lawyer for a second), and De Niro making the most of his loathsome character (both actors are also in terrifyingly good shape). In a supporting role, Deutch is a lovely discovery, somehow bringing sweetness and easygoing charm to her scenes with Efron, even when they’re book-ended by Dick’s big, swinging Johnson.
But Dirty Grandpa is ultimately a movie that, like one of the many raunchy comedies this one never even comes close to topping, wants to have its pie and fuck it, too. When Jason discovers new things about himself and his grandfather just in the nick of time during a pat and predictable third act, Dirty Grandpa makes the mistake of trying to play those moments as poignant. The mixture is uneasy, and it’s easy to wish the movie hadn’t taken that route, so it could be roundly dismissible as an insensitive, skin-crawlingly uncomfortable trash-can fire of a movie. It almost reaches that point any way, asking audiences to laugh at actual pedophilia, applaud Dick for not raping Lenore when she’s black-out drunk, and love him for defending a thinly written caricature of a gay character (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) at one point despite how relentlessly he spouts even worse slurs throughout literally every other scene in the film.
Such sweet-and-sour ambiguity is fundamentally terrible for a movie like this. It pushes audiences to admire and relate to characters who spout more vitriol than a 2016 Republican Party presidential candidate, even going so far as to try to justify their actions with exposition-dump reveals at the last possible second. And moreover, it waterlogs the hard-partying hedonism present in the premise, trying to reconcile the toxic masculinity and sexual deviancy that the characters embody with treacly messages about being true to yourself and not letting life pass you by. It’s all enough to make you question whether to hold your head in your hands and escape the visuals, or just hold your nose to ward off the stench.
When it’s a dirty-minded comedy and not trying to impart unwanted life lessons, Dirty Grandpa lives up – or rather down – to its title. During that part of it, some audiences will be able to look past its bigotry and enjoy it as escapism or, more dismayingly, a male entitlement fantasy. Others will find the jokes supremely unfunny and wonder how long Hollywood can keep pumping out comedies that laugh at various groups oppressed by heteronormative patriarchy despite an increasing demand for movies to appeal to more than just straight, white guys. But everyone will probably be on the same page in asking how De Niro came to this.
At one point, his character says to Efron’s, “The greatest gift a grandson can give his grandfather is a hot college girl who wants to have unprotected sex with him before he dies.” It’s an icky sentiment, and one that’s treated as such, but holds true throughout the movie as the note Dick wants to end with. And the longer Dirty Grandpa barrels along, the harder it is not to wonder: is De Niro unintentionally soiling his legacy with bad projects? Or is this exactly the kind of unpleasant, undemanding and beyond that uninteresting movie that such an icon, tired of trying, actually wants to go out on?
It lives up - or rather down - to its title, sending its stars on a hedonistic road trip with a pink Mini Cooper's worth of sexist, racist, homophobic and ugly jokes for company.