Robert De Niro was in a way my surrogate father in film. Through the work of the Godfather, Heat and The King of Comedy I was, like the rest of Hollywood, in awe of his talent. But just as good as he was in the disturbing Cape Fear, he showed in the late 90’s that he had a firm grip on comedy in the one two punch of Analyse This and Meet the Parents. So it saddens me to say right out the gate, that De Niro fans should avoid Dirty Grandpa, the true nadir of the gross out comedy genre. It’s not enough that this film continues the trend of the way better than he is treated Zac Efron in yet another odd and ultimately unfunny film, but to drag one of cinema’s most recognisable talents down as well is almost unforgivable.
Zac Efron plays Jason Kelly, a well-meaning lawyer who is faced with the loss of his grandmother two months before his wedding to Meredith (Julianne Hough). To help console his grieving grandfather Dick Kelly, a former Army Lieutenant-Colonel, he agrees to go on a soul searching trip and to help him move on from his loss. However, it’s quite quickly seen that it was a ruse for Dick to relive his youth in Florida for Spring Break. Jason embarks on a tour of outrageous parties, drug fueled escapades and a race to save his wedding ensue all while discovering his respect for his ‘Dirty Grandpa’.
Some movies when made follow a long process, perhaps one writer takes their first go cracking the story/treatment out, and then it gets taken to a producer who asks to add this element or remove this element, etcetera. From this point it goes through multiple writers and ghost writers to get to a point where they can film the best version of a script. This movie feels like it didn’t just cut this process but rather filmed a first draft. The opening of this film is filled with such vulgarity out of the gate that one can’t even adjust to the characters that speak it. The Hangover franchise for all the complaints of the sequels, at least nailed who these people were and the importance of friendship amongst the dick and ball jokes to keep audiences interested, but this movie just seems devoid of that set-up. It’s as if the film believes it can coast on sex jokes alone.
Dan Mazer, a director more known for his writing duties on Borat and Bruno with Sacha Baron Cohen, shows none of the social commentary or awareness of the work he has been previously attached to. Instead we see a movie that is enamored with having Robert De Niro making jokes about hot chicks and small balls. It’s not so much that I expected more from De Niro than this, but rather that the film thinks by having De Niro say all of this it becomes instantly funny. It’s the exact comedy found by inhaling a helium balloon, not so much about what is being said that’s funny but rather where the sound is coming from. Unfortunately, as anyone could tell you, too much inhaled helium is bad for you, and I got to that point in 20 minutes.
The film is led by Zac Efron and, to be honest, as with his turns in the Bad Neighbors franchise, he goes all out. He does everything the script asks of him, even if this leads to jokes based on getting extremely drugged to the point of being naked at parties, or simulating sex scenes with infants (this happens!!), and it all gets to a point of just cringing and looking away. It’s not like the cringe of the nude wrestling hotel fight of Borat, but rather the cringe of watching someone you love lose control of themselves.
Outside of the cookie cutter love story that aims for sincerity a little too late to do anything, one must notice the appalling portrayal of women in this film. Most importantly is that of the soon-to-be wife Meredith, a controlling and mean spirited character whose only job is to be more conceited and awful than Jason and Dick ever were. The film colours her so broadly that one even wonders how they would ever have gotten together to begin with. This film says ‘sure, Jason and Dick are awful people but Meredith is worse and therefore that makes them okay’. Not quite as egregious but just as simplistic is Audrey Plaza’s Lenore, a woman who just wishes to sleep with a professor (a lie Dick makes about himself), but even after being lied to, Lenore still just wants him. This isn’t really explained in a meaningful or believable way so it ends up being just another disappointing foot note for this film.
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SUMMARY: Dirty Grandpa’ is an odd point not just for the ever decreasing quality of Zac Efron’s films but simply as an interesting piece on the slide of Robert De Niro. The films lack of polish from both the director and from the script leaves me wondering how they even attracted this calibre of talent to the film in the first place. Simply put a film that throws its own female characters under the bus in such reckless abandon to make up for a lack of actual consequence is not only horribly written but woefully embarrassing to the viewers watching this film. If they wished to throw something under the bus this badly, it should have been the film itself.