It’s so rare for Robert De Niro to put in a watchable performance nowadays that it’s tempting to overpraise his smaller roles in movies where he’s not even the main attraction, just because he put forth a notable effort. Bit parts in films like Stardust & Silver Linings Playbook keep the He’s Still Got It dream alive while most top bill De Niro performances urge us to abandon all hope, to accept that whatever talent or drive the actor held onto as a young man is long dead. Dirty Grandpa might be a game-changer in that respect (and in that one aspect only). Dirty Grandpa is a broad, crass comedy about overgrown man-children that makes no real attempt to distinguish itself from every other broad, crass comedy about overgrown man-children that have filled out theater marquees since the rise of the Judd Apatow era. Robert De Niro’s performance within that framework as the titular grimy geezer is worthy of distinguishing praise, however. Once you get past the fact that his role is a series of grotesque sexual come-ons, irreverent gross-outs, expletive-filled karaoke performances, and feverish torrents of masturbation, it becomes apparent that it might be the actor’s bravest, most fully committed work in decades. It’s almost Freddy Got Fingered levels of audience-trolling absurdity that he decided to apply that latent sense of passionate craft to such an aggressively inane, grotesque line of humor.
Zac Efron is a buttoned up lawyer on the verge of marrying an uptight woman he very obviously has no feelings for. Robert De Niro is his ex-military grandfather and a recent widower. At first he comes off as a kind of racist, homophobic asshole, but really no better or worse than any other old white man his age. As the film develops, he reveals that his outward crassness is a deliberate ploy to shake his too-refined grandson out of making the romantic mistake of a lifetime in marrying a woman he doesn’t love. It’s a typical bro comedy plot, playing almost like a The Hangover spin-off (especially in its demonization of a shrewish fiancée whose only enjoyment in life is in ruining boys-will-be-boys type fun). Dirty Grandpa manages to make the effort worthwhile, though. Centering its conflicts around the grandpa’s immediate quest to fuck a young college student (that’s right; this grandpa fucks) the day after his wife’s funeral, the movie seems entirely self-aware about the frivolity of the story it’s telling. Its climactic heart to heart has nothing to do with teaching the grandson a life lesson, but instead includes the line, “The greatest gift a guy can give his grandpa is unprotected sex with a college girl before he dies.” The road trip mishaps on the journey to organize that gift at a Daytona Beach Spring Break celebration also cut down on the movie’s ultra-macho posturing, especially once the brocation is interrupted by the likes of a crazed drug dealer (Jason Mantzoukas), a sarcastic gay man (UnReal‘s Jeffery Bowyer-Chapman), and a no-fucks-given anarchic monster (Aubrey Plaza).
I was initially very weary of the bro humor Dirty Grandpa gleefully rolled around in like a pig in shit. Verbal references to “retards,” “buttfuckers,” and prison rape cool the comedy a great deal in the initial goings, but it’s easy to warm up to the film once you realize De Niro’s elderly gremlin is supposed to be an unlikable monster. I wound up admiring how gross Dirty Grandpa‘s gross-out humor dared to be and by the time the ancient bastard was rapping along to Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day” at a karaoke club I was fully on board with the cheap thrills this movie and this actor were willing to debase themselves to provide. Maybe De Niro is on some level too much of a talent to be employed for a gag where his adult grandson walks in on him fully nude & furiously masturbating (or “doing a #3,” in the movie’s parlance), but that kind of decision-making is more up to the actor & his agent than it is to me as an audience. I’m just happy to see the old man dive head first into non-vanilla, memorable material. Watching him take on a monstrous role as a wrinkled hellraiser with an unrelenting boner in a comedy whose title I consistently confuse with the throwaway Johnny Knoxville trifle Bad Grandpa might not have been my first choice in where I’d want to see his late-career trajectory go, but I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t a pleasure to behold. A dirty, shameful pleasure.