A running gag in “Dirty Grandpa” involves Robert De Niro sticking his thumb in Zac Efron’s butt. But to use that as a metaphor to describe the experience of watching this poor excuse for a comedy, would be to actually suggest there’s any kind of spark to the film. Tedious and painfully miscalculated, “Dirty Grandpa” is never as filthy or funny as it thinks it is, with screenwriter John Phillips operating under the mistaken impression that if you use “fuck,” “shit,” “cock,” and “vagina” (or variants thereof) as a verb or adjective in any (and every) sentence (especially as an insult), it’s instant comedy gold. Instead, the approach creates a sensation where every story beat and set piece strains with failing desperation in an effort to please (an effect that is even more pronounced when the movie brings fart jokes into the mix).
While the film’s promo material tells you pretty much everything you need to know about “Dirty Grandpa” already — unhinged grandfather and henpecked grandson go to spring break — there are a few other details to add the threadbare context this story needs. Richard “Dick” Kelly’s (De Niro) dedication to partying hard is his way of fulfilling his recently deceased wife’s deathbed wish that he move on, and find happiness. And for Dick, who has been completely monogamous to his wife for over four decades, and hasn’t had sex in fifteen years, that means making it his mission to screw anything he can. To help him on this sexual quest, he cajoles Jason (Efron) to drop everything he’s doing — which includes an upcoming wedding, and his responsibilities at his father’s law firm — and be his driver.
What is initially introduced by Dick as just a weekend in Florida playing golf and re-connecting with this grandson, soon becomes an operation with two goals: to sleep with college age Lenore (Aubrey Plaza), who is conveniently hoping to complete a sexual trifecta of her own creation (a freshman, an alumni, and a professor — Dick is posing as the latter), and make Jason realize his own personal and professional life is out of his control, with his every decision made for him by his fiancé Meredith (Julianne Hough, who we know is prickly because she keeps a fruit dish filled with artichokes on the kitchen counter) and father (Dermot Mulroney). That the duo conveniently bump into Jason’s old photography class partner Shadia (Zoey Deutch) helps that second task move along much more easily.
Directed by Dan Mazer, “Dirty Grandpa” shows his clunky handling of comedy hasn’t evolved much from the rather dire rom-com “I Give It A Year” a few years back. Even though none of the dialogue is funny on the page, Mazer still doesn’t seem to have an idea of how make his actors deliver it with any kind of shape, with scene after scene finding De Niro and Efron endlessly tossing lines back and forth, hoping that somewhere a setup and punchline will connect. They never do. “Dirty Grandpa” might also mark the first time in cinematic history that the only nudity in an R-rated spring break comedy is an old man’s penis, in a scene that could be easily snipped for the eventual airplane/broadcast version. Not that the film is required to show boobs or penises, but like other recent comedies “Daddy’s Home” and “Ride Along 2,” the half-measure of trying to be raunchy but also just clean enough to remain easily mainstream, does the movie no favors. Though, with that in mind, the edited version of “Dirty Grandpa” with re-dubbed clean dialogue might actually wind up being funnier, if only to see how they dance around the excess of epithets.
Thankfully, for the viewer who does decide to put aside their good taste and watch the film, there are a couple of lone bright spots. Plaza, who isn’t utilized in “Dirty Grandpa” nearly enough, makes the most of her part, clearly having a great time in the unlikely role of showering De Niro with sexual innuendo. And while Jason Mantzoukas seems to be in a different movie altogether as good time surf shop owner/drug dealer Pam (yep, short for Pamela), it’s a movie I would’ve rather been watching. Also, bonus points to Mo Collins and Henry Zebrowski as a pair of police officers, who have a soft spot for Pam. Their small handful of scenes with Mantzoukas are good fun.
However, those are fleeting moments in a movie where the jokes aren’t just uninspired, they sometimes veer into plain cruelty, with no one seeming to get the difference. No target is off the table — race, gender, sexuality — but if you’re going to make risqué jokes, the burden of responsibility to be hilarious is even higher than usual. That is not to suggest that “Dirty Grandpa” is offensive, rather, the worst crime it commits is simply not being funny. Credit to De Niro, he puts on his game face and really goes for it, but he is given nothing to work with, and Efron hardly makes for a good counterpart for the legendary actor to play against. Nor does it help that Efron’s character, tasked with putting a stop to De Niro’s fun, also manages to do the same to the movie as well. [D]