Bad Movie Night: Robert De Niro’s Bafflingly Loathsome Career Nadir, ‘Dirty Grandpa’

Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, we look at the recent-ish Dirty Grandpa, the absolute nadir of late-period Robert De Niro, which is really saying something.

Back in 2001, then-MTV sensation Tom Green directed, co-wrote, and starred in Freddy Got Fingered, a gross-out comedy that was greeted with some of the most cutting reviews of its era. The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter called it “an abomination” that ran “the longest 95 minutes in human history.” Web critic James Berardinelli announced, “I have gotten better entertainment value from a colonoscopy.” Variety’s Robert Kohler deemed it “one of the most brutally awful comedies ever to emerge from a major studio.” And in a notorious zero-star pan, Roger Ebert proclaimed, “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”

And in the wake of those scathing notices, a certain type of moviegoer emerged, convinced that such warnings must mean Freddy Got Fingered was ACTUALLY some work of punk-rock surrealist brilliance that the mainstream lames just didn’t GET, man. (Full disclosure: I might’ve been one of those moviegoers.) But Freddy Got Fingered was a lost cause, because not all critically drubbed movies are secret masterpieces. Some movies get bad reviews because, well, they’re bad.

A similar cult of contradiction has weirdly begun to congeal around Dan Mazer’s Dirty Grandpa, which appeared in January of this year – without screening for critics, natch, who instead saw it with the paying public and served up the year’s most savage reviews. Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt: “[L]ike spending 100-plus minutes with a scatological toddler, proudly showing you what he made in his diaper.” The New Republic’s Will Leitch: “[I]t will also make you feel bad for yourself, and anyone else who sees it, and anyone else who has to live in the world where it exists as a physical document.” RogerEbert.com’s Glenn Kenny: “The movie is so incredibly consistent in failing to land an honest laugh that about an hour into it, its not being funny becomes laughable.” It is not surprising to learn that professional contrarian Armond White embraces it (“Ignore the bluenose critics who sharpened their dentures on this movie; ironically, they’re the same fools who swallow drivel like The Hunger Games.” Heh?); its new champions are slinging his same bullshit.

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Because there’s nothing remotely daring or subversive about Dirty Grandpa – it’s a mainstream studio comedy with marquee names and the broadly commercial instinct of making us laugh at how “raw” and “edgy” it is. They’re working from the Seth MacFarlane playbook here, with a script that plays less like a story than a checklist of “un-P.C.” targets and “shocking” behavior. But, as with the bulk of MacFarlane, it’s neither offensive nor funny; it’s just sad. The stench of desperation couldn’t be more present if it were filmed in glorious Smell-O-Vision; it’s the most depressing movie I’ve seen this year, and I’ve seen two different documentaries about the Newtown shootings.

But hey, if you’ve ever wanted to hear Robert De Niro says lines like “You look like the keynote speaker at a butt-fucker’s convention” or “I’d rather let Queen Latifah shit in my mouth from a fucking hot air balloon” or, swear to Christ, “Peace out niggaz,” well, this is the movie for you. He stars as Dick Kelly, a former military man and recent widower; shortly after his wife’s funeral and on the eve of his grandson Jason’s wedding, he asks said grandson (Zac Efron) to drive him to Florida for – well, I can’t remember, exactly. “Motivations” are not a high priority in the script to Dirty Grandpa. Anyway, the kid agrees to drive him, and the table is set for the WACKY HIJINKS ahead when he turns up for the day trip, and discovers grandpa jerking off.

That scene is sort of the skeleton key to the whole movie: there’s no real set-up to the gag, or (forgive me) any real payoff. The punch line is telegraphed a mile away, it arrives, director Mazer points his camera at one of our most respected actors in the throes of masturbatory intensity as porn plays on the television in front of him, Efron is grossed out, we’re grossed out, end of joke. The entire movie plays like that: bad behavior, dirty jokes, and offensive slurs (women, gays, “retards,” black people, disabled people, and somehow even deaf people are the targets), photographed in the most rudimentary possible fashion, less at the service of anything resembling a narrative than as a serious of burlesque sketches, made for (and apparently by) people who think there’s nothing funnier than a “bad word.”

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But because this is a mainstream comedy in 2016, some dumb asshole also thought they had to include a serious romantic subplot and dramatic philosophical beats between grandfather and grandson. The such twinkly interludes are, to put it mildly, a weird fit; when you have to pause your score for a few bars in the middle so the star of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull can insists, “I wanna get my dick sucked by that fucking college girl,” well, it’s kinda hard to come back from that.

Dirty Grandpa is one of those movies that’s equal parts bad and baffling; it seems to have been written and directed by alien life forms who read YouTube comment sections for a week and drew these conclusions about human behavior. It’s hard to imagine anything on the page that would’ve drawn the likes of Efron, Aubrey Plaza, Danny Glover, Dermot Mulroney, Adam Pally, Zoey Deutch, Jason Matzoukas (unless he was doing a special undercover assignment for How Did This Get Made?), or – even in light of all he’s put us through in this 21st century – Robert De Niro. And it’s hard to even write them off as paycheck performances; with an $11.5 million budget, nobody got rich off this one, at least up front. (It ended up grossing nearly $100 million worldwide, a tidy profit for such rank trash; see Mencken and going broke underestimating intelligence and all that.) They all looked at that script, at the scenes of De Niro complimenting his grandson’s “nice dick” and of Pally despairing that he talked to his deaf uncle “like a normal” and all the rest of it and decided yep, gotta get some of this action.

It’s not that dirty can’t be funny; far from it. Mel Brooks did it all the time, as did John Waters, as did Richard Pryor, as did Redd Foxx, as did the Farrelly Brothers (back in the ‘90s, anyway), as did Kevin Smith (back in the ‘90s, anyway), as does Louis C.K., as does Judd Apatow’s crew. It can be done, but by breaking taboos at the service of story or commentary, not by presuming the mere utterance of a profanity or invoking of a sex act or unveiling of a body part is the beginning, middle, and end of the joke. That’s not funny, that’s lazy, and Dirty Grandpa is one of the laziest movies I’ve ever subjected myself to. At least Freddy Got Fingered had some goddamn ambition.

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