Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 15, 2016)
Prior to 1999, viewers knew Robert De Niro mainly as a dramatic actor. However, after he starred in that year’s hit Analyze This… well, audiences still largely regarded De Niro as a dramatic performer, but over the last 17 years, the legend has leaned comedic much more of the time.
De Niro’s first flick of 2016 definitely goes down the path toward laughs, as Dirty Grandpa provides a raunchy comedy. After the death of his wife, Dick Kelly (De Niro) needs a quick ride from Atlanta to Florida. He asks his grandson Jason (Zac Efron) to do this, though the timing could be better, as Jason will soon marry his fiancée Meredith (Julianne Hough).
An uptight, dutiful sort, Jason agrees and figures this will make for a short, tidy trip. The trek doesn’t work out that way, as the lecherous Dick puts them in all sorts of wild, bawdy situations.
Before Dirty hit screens, movie buffs bemoaned that it marked the nadir of De Niro’s long, usually distinguished career and fretted that it would soil his reputation in the long term. Time will tell if the latter becomes true, but I doubt it, as De Niro’s filmography includes enough gems to overwhelm the crummier efforts.
Though De Niro almost seems intent on diminishing that legacy, as he makes a lot more chaff than wheat these days. De Niro appears willing to do pretty much anything with a paycheck involved, which has led to lots of bad films over the last few years.
Does Dirty stand as the worst of the bunch? Maybe, though I will admit it isn’t as terrible as I expected. I anticipated a true car wreck, a witless effort on a par with those awful movies in the Date Movie “genre”. As poor as Dirty can be, it still shows occasional glimmers of life, which automatically makes it better than Date Movie and its ilk.
I also preferred Dirty to an earlier De Niro effort, the thoroughly abysmal Meet the Fockers - aka, “The Worst Misuse of Talent in Hollywood History”. At least Dirty musters the occasional moment of mild wit, whereas Fockers lacks even rudimentary entertainment value. (For the record, I never saw the next film in the series, Little Fockers - it might be even worse than its predecessor, but I can’t say.)
If you’ve not already noticed, we’re firmly into the “faint praise” portion of the review – and can “not as atrocious as I expected” be viewed as anything other than the most minor form of plaudit? It’s true: Dirty rose above expectations – but it remained a nearly humor-free experience.
Dirty remains known as a crude, smutty film, but most of that material appears in its first half. Right out of the gate, we get a relentless barrage of ugly, tacky attempts at humor – many of which involve De Niro. Want to see him pretend to whack off? You’re in luck, and you’ll also hear De Niro say the words “cock”, “vagina” and many forms of profanity more often than you might’ve thought humanly possible.
At least in a potential comedic environment. Of course, with all those Scorsese films under his belt, De Niro’s no stranger to “the ‘F-word’” and all forms of similar language, but those movies used the dialogue to suit the characters.
In Dirty, the opposite occurs, as the filmmakers tailor the characters to fit the words/gags – and everything else, for that matter. My biggest complaint about Dirty doesn’t stem from the crudeness – I don’t care for this style of gross-out humor, but it’s not the main problem.
Instead, the movie loses massive points because it’s so totally, relentlessly lazy and illogical. In a well-constructed film, the gags serve the story and characters, but here, the cart goes before the horse. Jokes exist in their own universe without any consideration whether or not they make sense in the greater context.
Examples of this abound. Why is Jason’s fiancée Jewish? To allow a joke that involves penis swastikas and a rabbi. Why are local Daytona cops working the traffic beat on the Florida/Georgia border, many miles from their locale? To use regular characters in the finale.
And so on. This trend’s nadir occurs during the wedding rehearsal dinner, where a deactivated microphone prompts the lamest game of “telephone” on record. The movie contrives in so many ways to force its terrible gags on us, and none of it makes the slightest amount of sense.
Dirty consists of a premise and gags without any real attempt at a narrative. Sure, but the end, it ties together Dick’s desires to liberate Jason from his uptight life, but that’s simply an afterthought in the greater scheme of things. Dirty cares way more about profanity and crudeness than it does story and character.
I probably wouldn’t mind that orientation as much if more actual humor resulted, but I’m not sure a single laugh results from Dirty - though the actors work their hardest to entertain. I’ll give De Niro credit: as much as this looks like a “paycheck movie”, he invests himself in the role, and he seems to enjoy himself, too. Granted, I’d be pretty happy if someone paid me to ogle/fondle hot women, but still, at least De Niro doesn’t sleepwalk through the movie.
Aubrey Plaza also threatens to bring life to the film. Her role exists as little more than a tawdry plot device, but her natural sense of snarky ironic detachment lends some glimpses of humor in her scenes. Jason Mantzoukas also contributes a bit of flair, even if his garrulous drug-dealing character suffers through some of the flick’s dumbest conceits.
In the end, Dirty Grandpa could’ve been worse – but it could’ve been much, much better as well. As it stands, the end result is too stupid, crude and illogical to be anything more than a “D-“ movie.
Note that the Blu-ray provides a longer unrated cut of the film. This adds about seven minutes to the “R”-rated theatrical version. Because the Blu-ray represented my first viewing of Dirty, I can’t list the differences between them.