Oh, my! Why is De Niro working so much and choosing mediocrity like Dirty Grandpa? At times he is wildly funny in a film that has moments of greatness surrounded by banal attempts to get laughs. The beginning of the film is a set up and tedious in its struggle to be outrageous. The concept of an old man wanting to "get laid" and go out with a bang before the bell tolls, is a funny one. But what happened to the execution?
The plot is as follows: De Niro's grandson, Zac Efron, is about to marry an uptight socially conscious Julianne Hough. Dick Kelly (De Niro) whose wife just has died, is opposed to the wedding and creates a diversion by asking Jason (Zac Efron) to drive him to Florida to visit an old friend Stinky, (Danny Glover). About twenty minutes into this film, Stinky who is attached to an IV while watching porno films in a nursing home, gives a shot of energy that has been lacking. Glover is wickedly funny and lights up the screen in too small a part.
Up to this moment De Niro's dialogue is gross and not funny. While his acting is -- as usual -- impeccable, I wondered what was he doing making this film which is essentially an exercise in how gross the writer can go. The vulgarity becomes a bore. This convoluted unfunny film is written by John Philips who is at work on Bad Santa 2 which may give an indication as to the sensibility of the humor. Bad Santa 1 was a masterpiece in the ribald, but Dirty Grandpa is not. It must be noted that Philips did not write Bad Santa 1.
Grandpa Kelly convinces Jason that Kelly wants to have great sex one more time before he dies so a search for co-eds on Daytona Beach becomes the backdrop for drugs, combined with Kelly's sexual frustration. Zoey Deutch and Aubrey Plaza become the girl power on the beach and objects of Kelly's and Jason's affections. Dan Mazur directs without losing focus of the plot, though these scenes are chaotic at best. Mazur's direction is not the problem. It's the writing.
As Dirty Grandpa progresses, the humor seems to improve unless I was simply becoming numb to its strain. The last scene is pay dirt in which Aubrey Plaza steals these moments from De Niro. Plaza gives a ferocious energy that will have you scratching your head thinking, "Maybe this wasn't such a bad film after all." Certainly it is the best written scene and one can almost forgive writer John Philips for being so heavy-handed throughout the film to make his point. Acknowledgement should be made of Mo Collins whose dry wit ignites the scenes in which she plays a corrupt policewoman with a deadpan expression that carries these moments and again wishing her role were not so small.
I remember in the mid-seventies when De Niro was fired by Mike Nichols in the film Bogart Slept Here because Nichols felt De Niro could not handle comedy even though De Niro had done Hi, Mom! for Brian de Palma to acclaim. In Bogart Slept Here De Niro was replaced by Richard Dreyfus while the director became Herbert Ross and the title was changed to The Goodbye Girl.
Of course in the Meet the Parents series, De Niro flaunted his comedic timing, but his role was of an uptight military man and modest next to his character in Dirty Grandpa, which calls for a fearlessness which he meets head on and for this he should be lauded. Or should it be? To ask an audience to watch this kind of macho display of senior testosterone is questionable. Is De Niro facing a kind of male menopause propelling him to choose this role or is he haunted and his ego is still reeling from having been fired by Nichols decades before for being unable to handle comedy? And does he have a deep-seated need to prove himself in a film showing his comedic acting chops in close to pornographic spades?
Well, Dirty Grandpa proves that De Niro can play comedy with aplomb. He certainly is not afraid to make a fool of himself. His courage to play against his image and to risk humiliation is praiseworthy, but the material Phillips has given to him is beneath him.
De Niro is too good an actor for Dirty Grandpa and while it was brave of him to try to do and to be Dirty Grandpa, it is a strain to watch.