Directed by: Dan Mazer
Premise: A conservative young man (Zac Efron) drives his grandfather (Robert De Niro) to Florida and along the way they get into naughty misadventures, with the old man leading the charge.
What Works: There is something inherently laugh inducing about children and old people saying awful things. If a teenager curses or a middle aged adult acts inappropriately, there’s not much comedy in it. But when the very young or the very old do the exact same thing it is nearly impossible to suppress a laugh. Our preconceived ideas about the elderly—that they are wise, frail, and better mannered—collides with the vulgarity and that’s what makes the audience chuckle. There is no denying that Bad Grandpa does this and does it a lot. The film places a septuagenarian in the hedonism of spring break and Robert De Niro holds nothing back as his character tears through parties, drugs, and young women. But most of the humor of Bad Grandpa is vocal and found in the abuse that the grandfather lobbies toward the younger cast, in particular his grandson played by Zac Efron. The moviemakers have an ear for the foulmouthed insult and in the very least Bad Grandpa deserves some credit for the sheer amount of vulgarity that’s crammed into this picture.
What Doesn’t: The fact that Bad Grandpa features an old man being uncouth is enough to get a laugh but it’s not enough to make the movie funny. Laughter is an involuntary reaction and comedies have to be judged not just on whether or not we laugh but also upon why we laugh, what we are invited to laugh at, and how we feel about ourselves afterward. By putting a lot of dirty jokes in the mouth of an old man, the filmmakers of Dirty Grandpa have used a sly trick to make the audience laugh but much of that laughter is of the gasping variety. Dirty Grandpa is built on the gimmick of an old man saying a lot of inappropriate things and that’s all there is to the movie. It isn’t just that he’s rude. Robert De Niro’s character is a sexist, racist, homophobic jerk and the movie invites us to laugh along with him while he carries on. There is a good movie to be had in this premise; it could be the tale of a young man coping with a racist and homophobic grandparent and the movie could find humor the grandson’s exasperation. But the sympathy of Dirty Grandpa is not placed with Zac Effron’s character, who is portrayed as a stiff who needs to loosen up, dump his fiancé, and live his life. The movie is utterly on the side of De Niro’s character. There is an important distinction to make between Dirty Grandpa and apparently similar films like Bad Santa; Terry Zwigoff’s 2003 film was funny in a mordant way. The makers of Bad Santa didn’t think their title character was cool. They understood that he was a human train wreck and for all of their vulgarity the characters of Bad Santa possessed genuine humanity. That’s not the case in Dirty Grandpa. The film has nothing but contempt for anyone. It’s also astonishingly unoriginal. This is yet another story of a nice guy who has made safe and conservative life choices until his irresponsible buddy takes him on a bender in which his perfect plans are turned upside down. Dirty Grandpa is virtually the same movie as The Hangover and a million romantic comedies in which a guy on the cusp of marriage meets his true love. As crass as this movie can be, the forced sentiment is in some ways worse. After rubbing our faces is vulgarity, Dirty Grandpa makes a play for a family-values-affirming conclusion and the finale works its way through every romantic comedy cliché, including the contrived race-to-the-airport gag. It’s a disingenuous capstone to an otherwise ugly movie.
Bottom Line: Robert De Niro’s late period has been a strange experiment with the actor testing the durability of his star power in a series of terrible projects. It’s hard to imagine De Niro stooping any lower than Dirty Grandpa, a film that is the equivalent of an old man standing on a street corner yelling racial and homophobic insults. We may laugh at him but that doesn’t mean this is funny or something to be proud of.
Episode: #581 (February 7, 2016)