Wow, who knew that the much maligned trailer for Dirty Grandpa might just turn out to be the very best of the year? Trailers can hide what a film really is, or mislead you about what to expect, but functionally, they’re meant to briefly encapsulate the movie they’re advertising, and rarely has a film’s corpulence been so perfectly distilled, with such repellent efficiency, as this.
In case you missed the trailer and might otherwise wander into a cinema with any other expectations, the title character is Dick Kelly (Robert De Niro), a septugenarian whose wife has recently passed after a long battle with cancer. He’s not on good terms with his son (Dermot Mulroney), but his buttoned-down grandson Jason (Zac Efron) has fond childhood memories of him.
In fact, not one week before he’s due to wed his fiancée Meredith (Julianne Hough), he willingly drives Dick to Florida to see an old army buddy. When they’re waylaid to Daytona Beach by a group of students (Aubrey Plaza, Zoey Deutsch and Jeffrey Bowyer Chapman), Jason is horrified to realise that Dick’s plan is to get drunk, get high and get laid over spring break.
This script, written by John M Philips, was included in the 2011 Black List, the annual industry collection of the best unproduced screenplays. There are many complications in bringing such projects from page to screen, but it must have been some combination of that honour and De Niro’s involvement that made anybody think this was something they’d want to help to make. Sadly, it’s beyond the best efforts of a talented cast to elevate this.
What we’ve actually got, for the Black List recommendation and the Oscar-winning leading man and the promising young cast, is a film that is desperate to shock. For at least the first hour of its 102 minute running time, the bombardment of homophobia, racism, sexism, jokes about cancer, jokes about paedophilia is pretty much relentless, but none of it lands. It’s artless raunchiness, with as much disdain for sex and sexuality as any other studio comedy of its ilk (for instance, Sex Tape, another 2011 Black List script which found that sort of thing to be a bit icky).
To add insult to injury, director Dan Mazer indulges every partially improvised and entirely unwatchable line-o-ramas that should always end up on the cutting room floor. If you were to take a shot every time Dick found a way to call Jason a vagina or compare something he’s wearing or driving to a vagina, you’d quickly get as drunk as he is the first time he sticks his thumb up his grandson’s arse. That’s right – the first time.
Eventually, you realise the shocker recurs because the shocks don’t register- for the sheer magnitude of ways in which De Niro tells Efron he’s a vagina, you would think that at least one of them might even accidentally be funny.
It’s trite to say that an actor of his stature should know better, except that we know he does – Midnight Run, Meet The Parents and even his more dramatic performance in The King Of Comedy show that he should understand comedy enough to know that this isn’t it. The latter of those films is just one instance of a performance in which he had real edge, so he likewise knows that you can’t fake that by swearing and leering at 20-somethings. This feels even less edgy than 2013’s Last Vegas, though it’s considerably more crass.
Oddly, you can’t even say that he knows this but just doesn’t care. He seems to be more alert at the wheel here than in any of his recent films with David O Russell, which is just as well, because otherwise it would be truly unwatchable. Similarly slumming but trying his darnedest is Efron, an all-rounder who should really have realised by now that he’s already broken his High School Musical type and stop faffing around with tripe like this. Sure, they find opportunities for him to act, dance and sing at different points in the movie, but he’s one of the most consistently misused young actors going.
Aubrey Plaza is wasted too, as her laconic energy is completely misdirected into one-note fetishism for De Niro’s character that doubles as painful baby boomer wish fulfilment and trots out all of the most obvious jokes (if Werther’s Original paid anything for product placement, it evidently wasn’t enough) because there’s literally nowhere else to go with her character. Everyone in this is better than this movie, but it’s particularly sad to see Parks & Rec‘s April Ludgate stoop this low.
Mazer previously directed the scabrous but enjoyably cynical anti-romcom I Give It A Year, but even aside from the toxic script, this one isn’t especially well made. There are more establishing shots of girls’ midriffs than of locations and even a beer chugging contest becomes visually jumbled and hard to follow because of the judicious party montaging. The overall effect is as enjoyable as your granddad’s thumb in your bum.
Unexpectedly, the movie’s saving grace is Jason Mantzoukas, who usually does a good line in very short cameos as deeply obnoxious characters in films like these (with the exception of his sweetly against-type turn in Sleeping With Other People), but is deployed well at just about every opportunity as Pam, a vendor of crucial supplies. This may be because the film itself is so unerringly obnoxious that he actually comes all the way around, but in any case, he’s the only funny character.
It also looks very much like it was expanded during shooting, likely by someone behind the scenes saying “let’s have more of this guy”, but Mantzoukas’ weird omnipresence in the film heightens the sense that he’s actually a live-action cartoon character, but not in the same way as Hough’s character is short-changed into endless nagging interludes. It’s not an all-time great comedic turn, but let’s be frank, he’s also probably the only thing that would keep this off How Did This Get Made‘s to-watch list.
Dirty Grandpa luxuriates in filth, but seldom, if ever, raises so much as a smile. Nobody phones it in, but that only makes for more good thrown after bad. It’s criminally unfunny, but it’s not De Niro’s first comic misstep – don’t forget Little Fockers, Showtime or The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Here, he’s succeeded only in finding the new bottom. And then sticking his thumb in it.
Dirty Grandpa is in UK cinemas now.
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