It’s as if the creative team behind Dirty Grandpa knew how lucky they were to nab Robert De Niro.
Here’s a low-level comedy with a likely modest budget and only the promise of R-rated treats to bolster its appeal. Robert De Niro plays Dick Kelly, a seemingly soft-spoken widower looking to spend some quality time with his grandson, Jason (Zac Efron), a stick-up-the-ass corporate lawyer who’s totally changed, man. Not even five minutes into the film, a polo-clad Efron walks in on De Niro doing the five-knuckle shuffle, and De Niro couldn’t care less. Dick has to set Jason straight. Dick just had to do a “Number Three,” you see, real quick. Within this scene, a lot doesn’t work: the pacing, the staging, Efron’s preppy bafflement. However, De Niro’s don’t-give-a-shit devilishness is something to be reckoned with. And enjoyed.
That’s Dirty Grandpa in a nutshell. De Niro brings his mature might and lifts the film from being understandably swatted as a January dumper. If for one second you forget the diverging script, the weak direction, and Efron’s limitations, there’s something to be amused by with De Niro’s flagrantly foul-mouthed, horned-up grandfather figure.
The basics: Dick just lost his wife of 40 years and fears he’s losing sight of his grandson. Dick devises a trip to Florida in the hopes of a) scoring and b) helping Jason loosen up and realize he’s about to marry a monster (Julianne Hough, one of the shrillest caricatures and clichés). Jason’s arc is bad ‘80s comedy that’s a touch predictrable/regressive/unearned. Dick’s story, well, it almost makes sense. The two meet up with a trio of stereotypes (a hippie, a harlot, and a sassy gay man) and cut loose with mixed results. What comes next includes drug episodes, partially nude Efron jokes, and racy or surrealist humor of varying qualities. It’s all a sloppy vehicle for De Niro to make eye-widening references about Andre the Giant’s love-making techniques at the Playboy mansion.
John Philips’ script, while a Black List awardee, troubles itself by spinning too many plates as it aims at road comedy, generational whimsy, and of course, rrrrrr-raunch. Dan Mazer, at the helm, was a gifted scribe on Da Ali G. Show, but his directorial approach lacks cohesion. And let’s face it: Zac Efron, while happy to strip down to his abs, stammers and struggles to convey an arc in the face of a big and bad Bobby performance. Dirty Grandpa exists somewhere between The Graduate and Animal House, with a proclivity for pop cultural references and reverence for spring break as a sort of rejuvenating experience. Mazer’s film works half the time, but De Niro works it so hard he probably needed ointment on set.
De Niro uses his infamous temper and a foul mouth to make a modest sort of movie magic. Here, he curiously resembles the man who once screamed at his wife over steak and other expletives deleted in Raging Bull. De Niro barks, screams, shouts, begs and pleads, and often gets away with intriguingly enlightened and offensive lines. He slings the swears with that infamous mug of his.
At one point, Dick goes golfing with Jason. After a very long and loving marriage, Dick’s ready to get his freak on. Dick’s pretty much bursting at the seams of his pants; it’s been 16 years since the last time he enjoyed another’s company. Dick assures Jason that his libido was discussed leading up to Grandma’s death. She gave Dick her blessing, and Dick has one thing on his mind: gettin’ lucky. How lucky are we talking? Be advised, the next few quotes come from a film with a hard R:
“I wanna fuck! I wanna fuck till my dick falls off! I wanna fuck a horse!”
Continuing on, De Niro slings so many f-bombs together that this writer is blushing and barely able to continue. Just know that the final part of De Niro’s declaration is the 72-year-old screaming like a machine gun that he wants to “fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.” Even for De Niro, this is jaw-dropping. Yet his intentions are pure, insane, and most surprisingly, human and understandable. That’s the De Niro draw right there. That animal, that La Motta scream, is still there beneath the graying husk, and Dirty Grandpa grabs it and lets De Niro run wild.