Director: Dan Mazer
Stars: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron
2 (out of 5) Globes
There’s a strain of comedy where the humor comes from repetition. By simply saying or doing the same thing over and over (and over and over and over) again, the very act of persistent and aggressive recurrence itself becomes the joke. Radiolab once did an entire episode about repetition, which began with Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler’s very funny, very maddening bit where the latter keeps repeating a circular ditty with the words “Kristen Schaal is a horse!” while the former dances maniacally. It starts out funny, becomes unfunny, then becomes funny again, and over and over again.
“Dirty Grandpa” is sort of like that. It’s a terrible film — poorly made, sloppily written and boasting roughly 10,000 jokes that are, ultimately, the same not very good joke. That joke is: Robert De Niro, two-time Oscar-winning thespian, one of the finest actors of his generation, says and does super duper lowbrow garbage. The day after his wife’s funeral, De Niro’s old-timer heads to Daytona Beach with his grandson, Jason (Zac Efron), to cruise for tail. This isn’t one of those nice, funny geezer comedies (like “Last Vegas,” also featuring De Niro) where his prey is age-appropriate (or thereabouts). He wants collegiate ass. Along the way he deploys endless jokes about dicks, pussy (usually to emasculate his uptight relative), gay people, black people and also, for equal opportunity, bros. His name, of course, is “Dick.”
Unlike the Schall/Braunohler gag, “Dirty Grandpa”’s single joke isn’t funny to begin with. In fact, the film starts off with the worst variation it has: the sight of De Niro naked in a recliner, ’bating to porn, his Malcolm Gladwell obscured by a Kleenex box, “Austin Powers”-style. It’s not the dirtiest thing the actor has done onscreen; in Bernardo Bertollucci’s 1976 epic “1900,” he and Gerard Depardieu received an actual, real double handie from the same actress. That was art; this is low-hanging fruit. It can only go up from its first gag, and “Dirty Grandpa,” as Mel Brooks famously said of “The Producers,” rises below vulgarity, albeit not in any particularly funny way. It’s the same variation on the same dumb-bad joke repeated every couple seconds during a movie that’s at least 20 (or 102) minutes too long.
But back to the idea of repetition-as-comedy: Eventually the rank stupidity of the joke does become kind of funny, in a way, sort of, but only because of the sky high number of times it repeats it. The turning point comes about halfway through. Our heroes visit Dick’s dying friend “Stinky” in a nursing home. He’s played by Danny Glover. Stinky’s no more of an aesthete than Dick, and so Danny Glover — who, during elections, visits low-income urban neighborhoods, helping struggling people get to voting centers — shouts at an episode of “Alf” while putting the finishing touches on a very blue cross-stitch.
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For whatever reason it was here that this dumb joke finally became kind of funny. Call it Stockholm Syndrome; call it insanity; call it deep-seated bad taste being belatedly activated. In any case I began laughing loudly, not often but here and there, but especially whenever “Dirty Grandpa” would have De Niro do something crazier than usual. (At one point you see his fake schlong. Naturally.) The joke suddenly went from dumb-bad to dumb-sorta-occasionally-good. Maybe I wasn’t even laughing at the jokes, but at the idea of the jokes — the very notion that the guy from “Stanley and Iris,” who recently gave a sweet performance in “The Intern,” was doing a joke about his junk on a pillow, an inch from Zac Efron’s head.
Make no mistake: This is a dreadful film. Director Dan Mazer has a long, storied career with Sacha Baron Cohen, and he last helmed the spotty but sometimes amusing Brit anti-rom-com “I Give It a Year,” which featured its share of purely visual jokes. “Dirty Grandpa,” by contrast, is visually ugly and its few actual set pieces are incoherent. A bit about Dick spiking beer cups with Xanax doesn’t even bother following through. It can barely keep interest in the token subplot where Jason — who, by the way, is about to marry one of those sexist shrewish movie femme-monsters (Julianne Hough) — falls for a Daytona reveler (Zoey Deutch, winning and seeming to bop in and out from an actually funny, charming, not juvenile movie). Oh, and Efron is alternately sharp and bland, depending on the moment.
And yet even the stem-to-stern crapulence eventually becomes kind of funny, too. It’s so unapologetically lowbrow, so proudly inane and incompetent, so upfront about what it wants to do (get a horny old Robert De Niro laid with a kid) that its shruggy and single-minded attitude eventually becomes, in a sense, admirable, if you will. And it does have some genuinely funny bits, now and then. Ringers like Aubrey Plaza — as a 21-year-old who spends the entire film hot for De Niro, the two swapping R-rated banter like a crude, sex-obsessed Tracy and Hepburn — and Jason Mantzoukas know how to slip in oddball adlibs, even when they don’t seem to care. And De Niro is game — perhaps more game than he’s been in ages. That the star of “Awakenings” — who’s spent some of his autumn years delivering sleepy, who-cares performances — now gets most revved-up for a movie where he compliments a baby’s penis is, you have to admit, kind of funny.