by Philip Price
“Dirty Grandpa” is the kind of movie that longtime fans of Robert De Niro will scoff at and that others will see as Zac Efron continuing to hang his movie stardom on the only game in town that seems to work for him: R-rated comedies. By this point in time though, De Niro isn't hurting his legacy as much as he is simply continuing to do what he loves, but with less demanding material. The guy's legacy is cemented in the films he made and the roles he personified in his prime that are still discussed today. “Dirty Grandpa” won't hurt his legacy because no one will remember “Dirty Grandpa” two months from now. Efron, on the other hand, has been testing this reliable formula since “Charlie St. Cloud” and the indies he attempted didn't hit. The moment that not only “The Paperboy” failed to connect, but both “At Any Price” and “Parkland” failed critically and commercially it was as if Efron told his agent to only send him one type of script. Over the past two years Efron has starred in “That Awkward Moment,” “Neighbors,” “We Are Your Friends” and the movie we're discussing in this review. Just around the corner, the actor has four movies in some stage of production all of which are comedies, and all likely rated-R. So, what does this tell us about “Dirty Grandpa”? Well, it tells us to expect nothing more than the tried and true formula that has kept Efron afloat and that will continue to give De Niro paydays in the vein of “The Intern” and “Last Vegas.” These are perfectly fine, broad comedies that do what they are intended to do and little more. They open up with an accessible premise, do their job for an hour and a half, and wrap everything up nicely so we can go home feeling good about the $10 we invested in it. “Dirty Grandpa” certainly tries too hard in certain moments and director Dan Mazer doesn't know how to balance the raunch with the heart very well, but I laughed often enough to qualify it as more of a win than a waste of time. At the very least there is genuine character development happening as the arc of the film depends on it and there is clear effort being made to craft a legitimately funny movie which is more than I can say for the total cash grab that is “Ride Along 2.”
We've seen “Dirty Grandpa” before. This is the one where an uptight guy who has lived his life up until the point we meet him strictly by the books and at the wishes of someone else. We then bear witness to an intervention of a noble figure who swoops in just before our protagonist is getting ready to make the biggest mistake of his life. In this scenario the uptight, straight-laced fella is Jason Kelly (Efron), a lawyer who works at his father, David's (Dermot Mulroney), law firm and is set to marry fellow lawyer, Meredith (Julianne Hough), whose father is a partner at David's law firm thus making the two perfect for one another. David, who doesn't have the least bit of respect for his absentee father, has guided his son through every decision in his life despite there being a clear passion for travel and photography that is brought up early and awkwardly enough that we know to take note. It is when David's father and Jason's grandfather, Dick Kelly (De Niro), loses his wife that things get thrown off course. The day after the funeral Dick requests that Jason accompany him to Florida where Dick can shack up with his old war buddy, Stinky (Danny Glover), for the remainder of their days. It quickly becomes apparent Dick has a bigger end goal in mind though. After 40 years of marriage and 15 years of no sexual activity due to his wife's cancer Dick is ready to get back out there and live life the way he wants. Jason is unknowingly pulled into his grandfather's search for the youngest woman he can find that is willing to have sex with him, but lucky for them fate intervenes. At a diner Dick and Jason cross paths with Jason's old classmate, Shadia (Zoey Deutch), and her friends Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Lenore (Aubrey Plaza). While there are clearly sparks between Jason and Shadia, Lenore just so happens to be on a quest to complete a trifecta of sexual experiences in her senior year of college. Mistaking Dick for a professor, Lenore sets her sights on the game old man while Jason reluctantly goes along for the ride, but inevitably ends up learning more about himself than he ever imagined.
In many ways, “Dirty Grandpa” feels something like the spiritual sequel to “High School Musical” that was viciously hijacked by De Niro's character. Jason is essentially what would have become of Troy Bolton had those characters continued to grow in the fantasy world that Disney created for them. Even here, director Mazer surrounds his young and attractive cast with bright colors and picturesque houses that ooze the materialistic tendencies each possess. Would Troy have lived happily ever after with Gabriella? Probably, but Hough's Meredith makes a nice substitute for the standard Stepford who would eventually become monotonous and cause whatever version of Efron that's now present to resent her for allowing him to sleepwalk through the rest of his life. In one scene, Efron even pays a slight homage to his roots by really getting into a karaoke performance that will no doubt appease his grown-up HSM fans. If this were a Disney movie the message of doing what truly makes you happy rather than what you think will make others happy with you would be more overt, but “Dirty Grandpa” almost reaches the point of preaching this idea that it completely negates all the times I did laugh. Almost. That said, it is the hijacking of this alternate universe where Troy grows up to be a lawyer rather than studying kinesiology and returning to coach the Wildcats that gives the film its own ground to cover and more importantly, a platform for De Niro to just go for it. The best part about this film, besides a few small supporting characters that we'll talk about later, is De Niro's performance. While the guy might be picking projects to do left and right it is difficult to argue that the actor doesn't at least put his best foot forward even with material as vulgar and unrefined as this. As the titular perv, De Niro tosses out one liners with ease and builds a backstory that comfortably pits him as a master of sorts in any situation be it doing a rendition of Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day," with a large group of black people or keeping up with Lenore's flirt game by throwing back something to one-up her dirty, messed-up mind every time they come in contact with one another. If “Dirty Grandpa” is good anything though, it is to show the ever-widening range of Plaza as never in a million years would one expect April Ludgate to act in such a manner, but the chemistry and banter between De Niro and Plaza is worth the price of admission alone.
Sure, so we've more or less seen this movie before and sure, we know how things are going to end up the second Meredith interrupts her fiancé's grandmother's funeral to ask him what color tie he plans on wearing to their rehearsal brunch (yeah, she's that kind of annoying-won't even go with the traditional "rehearsal dinner"-anything to be different!), but it's the journey that counts, right? Well, given “Dirty Grandpa” is littered with enough strange and hilarious supporting characters to keep its rather thin premise alive the journey turns out to be a pretty interesting and ultimately fun one. The always reliable Jason Mantzoukas is hysterical as Pam, a small business owner who runs one of those gift shops along the coastline that sells Spring Break t-shirts and highlighter trucker hats, but really makes his money in the drug trade. The running bit he has about being blatantly obvious and kind of proud of his chosen occupation and role in the community is solid, but only reaches new heights when combined with Henry Zebrowski and Mo Collins as two oblivious Daytona Beach cops that view Pam as a friend and someone to impress. While Mantzoukas keeps things interesting on the excursion aspect of the film there is Adam Pally as Cousin Nick to keep things interesting on the home front. In what seem to be largely improvised scenes at both the visitation and immediately following the funeral Pally delivers on his delivery while the content isn't half bad either. A running joke of the competition between jocks Cody (Jake Picking) and Bruh (Michael Hudson) who look to claim Shadia and Lenore for themselves and the leading grandfather/grandson duo feels forced for the sake of plot though, and doesn't elicit enough laughs for it to play as big a role as it ultimately does. It is when the film tries to get heavy in its third act when discussing mortality and last-ditch redemption projects that the film takes on more than it can handle. Up until this point, “Dirty Grandpa” had been content with being little more than a slight diversion and it was good at that because it was pleasant enough. Lucky for us, the film quickly cuts the developing somber tone with jokes about Andre the Giant and all is well enough once again. It may seem as if I'm grasping at straws here, but there is no need to be offended by the inability of something like “Dirty Grandpa” to be great, but more we should simply be thankful that it is able to offend at all as that was clearly its goal. Mission (mostly) accomplished.