Dirty Grandpa tries to be a comedy of discomfort. The viewers are supposed to wince and squirm as the titular character says and does one lewd thing after another. The problem is that the protagonist is Robert De Niro.
The set-up is promising. After his wife dies, De Niro’s character (aptly named Dick) guilt-trips his grandson Jason (Zac Efron) into driving him from Georgia to Boca Raton — the trip he and his wife took every year during their marriage. Little does Jason know, Dick doesn’t actually want to drive down memory lane. His dear grandpa takes a detour to Daytona Beach in the midst of spring break with the goal of bedding as many young women as he can. Of course, Jason — an uptight, preppy lawyer on the verge of marriage — strongly disapproves.
The revelation of the grandpa’s plan and the tension it causes between the men is genuinely funny stuff. “You’re like the Terminator, sent from the future to cock-block me,” Dick tells his buff grandson, whose abs almost rip through all of his yuppie clothes.
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An all-American boy with a head for business and a bod for sin, Jason seems like a parody of Efron. And to some degree, Dick is a parody of De Niro’s classic onscreen persona — in the sense that every other word out of his mouth is a profanity. Therein lies the problem. The humor hinges upon the “surprise” that the sweet grandpa is actually a foul-mouthed fiend. But it’s hardly surprising to hear De Niro drop F-bombs. Therefore, it’s not really edgy or funny either.
With the exception of a few detours into gentler territory, De Niro has spent his whole career playing tough guys — men who spew vitriol and beat their naysayers to bloody pulps. His character in this film isn’t much different — less violent but a lot cruder. Dirty Grandpa might have been funnier if it revolved around a more “wholesome” screen icon letting loose. Jeff Bridges and Michael Douglas were both in the running for the role. Either one would have been a much better choice for the part. This film certainly won’t wreck De Niro, but it definitely won’t help him either.
Great comedy catches people off guard. It pulls the rug out from under their feet and leaves them gasping for air. Dirty Grandpa does neither. That’s not to say it’s completely without funny moments, but they’re too few and far between. If you want bold, dark, daring comedy, go back to De Niro’s youth — specifically to the 1982 gem, The King of Comedy, in which De Niro stars opposite comic legend Jerry Lewis. That’s a shining example of a truly great comedy — the kind that splits your sides and leaves you shivering at the troubling ideas underneath the punchlines. The King of Comedy will stay with you. Dirty Grandpa will fade from your memory as soon as you leave the theater.