Earlier this week, Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen wrote an essay called “The Shaming of Robert De Niro,” in which she criticized cinephiles who think De Niro should retire rather than continue to harm his legacy as one of his generation’s finest actors by appearing in subpar material. Such arguments, Petersen says, are “snobbery at best and thinly veiled ageism at worst.” Starring in films like The Bag Man, Red Lights, and Killing Season “might not be working with Scorsese for 10 years,” she adds, “but it’s not shameful.”
Petersen published her De Niro defense on Wednesday, which was convenient timing; it meant she could defend late-career De Niro without having to actually watch or justify Dirty Grandpa, a vile and misanthropic comedy about a senior citizen who desperately wants to have sex with a college girl. Maybe a two-time Oscar winner shoving his dick in his grandson’s face, spewing homophobic jokes (plus a couple of n-words for good measure), and spending 102 minutes trying to bed Aubrey Plaza isn’t shameful. But it sure isn’t funny.
Give Dirty Grandpa this much: The title is 100 percent accurate. De Niro plays Richard Kelly (Do the filmmakers hate Donnie Darko or something?), whose wife dies after a long battle with cancer. One day after her funeral, though, he’s had enough grieving, and convinces his uptight grandson Jason (Zac Efron) to take him on a road trip to Florida, where he plans to have sex for the first time in 15 years, preferably with a sweet young coed. Fortunately for Richard (“Dick,” because penises) he and Jason have barely set out on their journey when they happen upon Plaza’s Lenore, whose sole defining character trait is her all-consuming hunger for Robert De Niro’s admittedly well-preserved body.
The timing for these debauched shenanigans is particularly bad for Jason because he’s about to marry a woman named Meredith (Julianne Hough) who’s so cold and hateful she could play Mr. Freeze in the next Batman movie. Meredith is the kind of controlling shrew that only exists in dudebro Hollywood comedies; she’s obsessed with money and status and punctuality and hates fun and excitement and her fiancé’s happiness. In one scene, she calls Jason 37 times in a single night when he doesn’t answer his phone; in another she nags him until he picks the tie color for his groomsmen in the middle of his grandmother’s funeral. De Niro’s nasty septuagenarian is redeemed by the end of the film, but each new sequence right up to Meredith’s final appearance reveals additional layers of awfulness, because being a deceitful bigot is better, I guess, than being a woman and caring about a wedding. Girls, am I right?
Jason is, of course, oblivious to the fact that he is about to marry a monster, at least until he and his granddad meet Lenore, and Jason reconnects with her buddy Shadia (Zoey Deutch), who he knew in college back when he was still cool and hadn’t sold out his dreams of becoming a photographer for a career in corporate law. Jason and Richard are supposed to drive to Boca Raton, but when Lenore and Shadia mention they’re headed to Daytona Beach for Spring Break, grandfather and grandson ditch their itinerary to pursue the women and their friend Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), who is mostly present to be mocked by Richard for being both black and gay. Later, though, Richard sort of apologizes for all the verbal abuse while beating up a bunch of other homophobes, so it’s totally okay!
That’s Dirty Grandpa’s entire comic strategy; turn profanity and bigotry into cheap laughter and then try to forestall any criticism by having other people onscreen say “That’s offensive!” There’s no issue with De Niro and Efron’s effort; both are game for every disgusting line and ludicrous set-piece. But they have less material to work with than Aubrey Plaza’s costume designer. The screenplay by John Phillips contains plenty of vulgarity and few actual jokes; if you’re not amused by the concept of Robert De Niro saying words like “butt-f---” and “smegma,” or several different old guys repeatedly calling Zac Efron a lesbian, don’t expect to laugh much.
There are sequences in this film more fantastical than anything in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In one, Jason awakens from a drug stupor on a beach wearing nothing but a stuffed animal, which a random boy passing by desperately wants to hug, which leads the boy’s father to mistakenly assume Efron is sexually molesting his son. There’s a scene where Robert De Niro recites the names of every Wu-Tang Clan member from memory. The whole connection between Jason and Shadia is baffling; they had a college photography class together, but she’s still in college while he’s already working as a lawyer at his dad’s firm? And then there’s the character of Pam, a drug dealer in Daytona who gleefully shoots up his own souvenir shop and repeatedly worms his way out of jail by sweet-talking the bumbling local cops. Even worse, the part of Pam is played by Jason Mantzoukas, which means we’ll never get the episode of How Did This Get Made? this disaster so richly deserves.
Petersen says that “to like Robert De Niro in 2016 is to give no shits about what other people think of you and your taste.” That’s never been truer than today. I can’t say for certain Dirty Grandpa is the worst movie De Niro’s ever made, but that’s just because he’s cranked out so many stinkers in the last couple years that I’ve missed a couple. The only thing worse than the film’s putrid attempts at humor are its sudden and wholly unearned third-act shift into saccharine sentimentality. On the plus side, those are easily the funniest scenes in the movie.