Movie Review: Dirty Grandpa
By Ben Gruchow
February 8, 2016
When witnessing Dirty Grandpa - and what a shapeless, drafted-by-committee title that is! - it helps to remember that there are likely very few times, if any, when a movie’s final shape is visible or apparent at the screenplay or production stage. Heck, some movies make it halfway through postproduction before the true nature of the project reveals itself. This is just about universal; you can’t predict with total accuracy whether a movie is going to cross that invisible line between working and not working before you’ve chosen the “right” take of a line of dialogue, or before you’ve seen how weather and light or any other variable affects a scene or shot.
You can have a moment on paper or in raw footage that’s rudimentary and it cuts together into something alive and unexpected…and you can just as easily have a moment that works on paper, works on set, and you can cut where you intended to cut, and something just doesn’t add up. Or it subtracts. In the case of this film, which has Zac Efron playing a nebulous moral weathervane of a human being, Robert De Niro playing his widowed, lecherous, and bullying grandfather, and a host of supporting actors populating a world of mean-spirited and soulless cardboard cut-outs in the rough shape of human beings, it has subtracted.
If we take a look at the very broad strokes of the plot - De Niro’s Dick Kelly has just survived his wife’s death, and he recruits grandson Jason to drive him from Georgia to Florida under the pretense of remembering her - we can see the shape of something that might have worked as effective character study, as raunchy comedy, or as both. The approach has precedent; look at Bridesmaids, or Neighbors, or There’s Something About Mary. Each of these had gross-out moments to equal or outdo anything in Dirty Grandpa, but they also earned those moments through careful, deliberate build-up. De Niro and Efron know what they’re doing as actors; in this film, they’re in the presence of the invaluable Aubrey Plaza.
They are helpless in the face of a screenplay that assigns one or two traits to each character, pairs those traits off in ways that ensure maximum grating dissonance, and dials the volume up to ten; their estimable combined abilities in terms of comic timing are betrayed by direction that stages scenes with the finesse of the type of adult film you generally don’t see going before the MPAA. This is a sad and desperate plea for attention; it knows that a good film may contain crudity, but it does not understand why.
I have heard the movie condemned for its sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on, and the movie is indeed all of these things - but it’s these things in such a dim and out-of-touch way that it’s hard to get that worked up over it. It’s like listening to your senile grandfather or uncle spout xenophobic malapropisms at Thanksgiving dinner: you know he’s trying to offend, and it’s ugly, but he’s so far off-base with what he’s saying that you take pity rather than offense.
Efron’s Jason is due to be married in a few days’ time, but this is just enough for Dick to request that he accompany him to Boca Raton; this is a place he evidently went each year with his late wife. Of course, this is a lie; Dick really just wants to go to Daytona Beach for spring break. On the way there, they encounter former classmates of Jason’s: Shadia (Zoey Deutch, the one member of the cast who radiates some desperately-needed sincerity and warmth) and Lenore (Plaza). There is flirting. In Daytona Beach, Dick and Jason meet Shadia and Lenore’s boyfriends, who they dislike. There is the challenge of a drinking contest. Drinks are laced with drugs. The wrong people take them. There are misunderstandings and incriminating situations. There is more partying. More drugs. More profanity. And so on, for what agonizingly feel like hours.
The movie commits some strange form of hara-kiri by going for the heart in its final quarter; Dick turns out to have life lessons to impart, although these lessons are of the most banal and elementary wisdom, and Jason wants to hear them about as much as we do. We in the audience have already been lost; interaction between the two principal characters has long since devolved into unpleasant little exchanges where these people exchange profane insults in a profoundly joyless way. Since we’re surrounded by hateful ciphers for the majority of the movie’s runtime, the last-act play for a “be true to yourself” life lesson succeeds only in talking down to an audience that is, statistically speaking, several dozen IQ points smarter and more prescient than the speaker.
It’s also aggravating, because De Niro and Efron try hard to bring the material to life; they succeed all too well in selling us on the reality of these desperately unhappy and defensive people. Deutch has the demeanor of a young Rose Byrne, and she similarly channels that actress’s dignity in her recital of trite dialogue. She has charisma in her scenes with Efron; I’d like to see her in a real movie at some point. This one might achieve some minor notoriety for its willingness to wallow around in the bottom of the barrel and insist on its own edginess, but it feels destined to become the type of project that its cast members look back on in televised career retrospectives with faint amusement, and a real sense of their agent’s fallibility.