When Robert De Niro receives his inevitable lifetime achievement Oscar, don’t expect his highlight reel to include a single clip from “Dirty Grandpa,” a brutally unfunny stab at ribald comedy that stands as the legendary actor’s big-screen nadir. Spouting an endless stream of profane one-liners, each of them more desperate to shock and offend than the last, De Niro gives it his best raunchy effort as a senior citizen who convinces his stuck-up preppy grandson (Zac Efron) to take him to Florida. His commitment to the role, however, is far more than it — or the film — deserves, as its sub-“Hangover” juvenilia is almost as excruciating as its basic construction is sloppy. While its cross-generational leads may attract a few curious moviegoers hungry for some humor, dreary word-of-mouth will likely force this fiasco into early theatrical retirement.
On the day of his wife’s funeral, Dick (De Niro) guilt-trips his grandson Jason (Efron) into helping him honor his late spouse by taking the same journey from Georgia to Boca Raton that they made each year. Though his wedding to prim Meredith (Julianne Hough) is fast approaching, Jason — a corporate lawyer who works for his dad, David (Dermot Mulroney) — reluctantly agrees to this task, only to just about throw up on one of his many polo shirt-and-khaki outfits when he goes to pick up Dick and finds the man pleasuring himself to porn, and casually referring to his climax as “a No. 3.”
Traveling in Meredith’s pink Mini Cooper, which Dick derisively refers to as a “giant labia,” the duo first stop at a golf course, where Dick begins his film-long habit of poking Jason in the ass with objects and/or his finger, all while espousing his consuming need for coitus. That objective is articulated in terms too filthy to repeat in a respectable publication such as this, though the film’s incessant verbal diarrhea is less shocking than merely embarrassing. Constantly deriding Jason as a “lesbian” and bombarding him with pun-based invectives about his lousy performance as a “wingman,” Dick is over-the-top inappropriate in a way that feels hopelessly strained, as if every one of his lines had been diligently crafted by screenwriter John Phillips for maximum oh-no-he-didn’t! effect.
Because he hasn’t had sex in 15 years, and because his dying wife told him to pursue the life he always wanted, Dick is determined to bed a young woman — and he finds that object of carnal desire in Lenore (Aubrey Plaza), a college sexpot whose mouth is almost as filthy as that of De Niro’s hot-to-trot elder. In order to shack up with Lenore, Dick forces a reluctant Jason to take him to Daytona Beach for spring break. Because Lenore is traveling with Shadia (Zoey Deutch), a hot hippie former classmate of Jason’s, the young dork agrees, although Efron seems so perpetually bored by these sensationalistic shenanigans that it’s difficult to tell if he’s even paying attention to the narrative’s who-what-where-when-whys.
What ensues is much X-rated banter between Dick and Lenore, multiple run-ins with a gleefully frank drug dealer named Pam (Jason Mantzoukas) who’s friends with the local cops, and a series of sequences in which Jason is compelled — by Dick, by circumstance, and by illicit substances — to loosen up and have a good time. This means he smokes crack and wears a G-string and a hornet-shaped stuffed animal on his crotch (thus fulfilling Efron’s one-shirtless-scene-per-movie quota), spends a night in jail for alleged pedophilia, and has to talk to his fiance, his family and a rabbi via Facetime while sporting, on his forehead, a crudely drawn swastika made out of penises.
Amid its nonstop nastiness, Phillips’ script feigns interest in character development, with Jason’s discarded dreams of being a Time magazine photographer revived by Dick’s and Shadia’s encouragement, and Dick’s career as a special-forces badass revealed as the reason for his estrangement from son David. The idea that an overseas-stationed Green Beret would act as belligerently low-class as Dick is tough to swallow, though even less palatable is the movie’s aesthetic crumminess. Director Dan Mazer shoots his Sunshine State-situated action in the flattest manner possible, and he edits his material — including De Niro performing an abysmal karaoke version of Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” punctuated by his use of the “N” word — with such rushed, herky-jerky awkwardness that it often feels as if the film is actively trying to escape itself.
As befitting such a guy-centric endeavor, women are presented as either chaste angels (Shadia), uninhibited sluts (Lenore) or soul-crushing spousal monsters (Meredith), Meanwhile, Dick’s recurring gay-panic jabs at Jason, as well as his cruel treatment of effeminate Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), further emphasizes the sense that “Dirty Grandpa” only respects, or has use for, straight Caucasian men of a certain take-what-they-want caveman variety. After repeatedly belittling Bradley for being both gay and black, Dick heroically rescues him from homophobic bullies — an act meant to illustrate that, deep down, this dirty old man is really a good guy. What it actually indicates, however, is that this contemptible fiasco is not only comfortable courting laughs through ugly mockery of minorities, but also doesn’t even have the courage of its own crass-as-I-wannabe convictions.