“Even before you die, you stop living and it’s all a big f*cking facsimile of the real thing.” -Robert De Niro, Dirty Grandpa
“Somebody call a lifeguard, because we’ve got a shart attack!” -Jason Mantzoukas, also Dirty Grandpa
This past weekend saw unusually dire attendance numbers at the movies, relative even to January, an already-bleak month for box-office receipts. Lionsgate executives sheepishly explaining to shareholders why the raunchy new comedy Dirty Grandpa was only able to muster a meager $11 million payday will most likely cite the snowstorm that trapped most Northeasterners at home as the cause of the dip in viewership, but invoking force majeure in this instance isn’t quite fair. The inclement weather was clearly the film’s fault, insofar as the planet Earth summoned this snowpocalypse to protect its children from the misfortune of seeing Dirty Grandpa.
Yes, the Robert De Niro/Zac Efron bro-comedy is quite poor, but just as intelligence doesn’t affect a person’s ability to feel emotion, quality doesn’t have any bearing on this film’s fascinating subtext. Beneath the surface of this noisily idiotic wish-fulfillment fantasy squirms a morass of existential fear. Dirty Grandpa isn’t good, but it’s also a barely-comprehending expression of the distinctly masculine anxieties attached to impotence, aging, and death. Around the film’s midpoint, high out of his mind on crack, Efron’s buttoned-up lawyer Jason screams, “I’m gonna live forever!” This is not senseless rambling from a peaking tweaker. This is a cry for help.
Dirty Grandpa begins with somber tones, at the funeral for Richard Kelly’s (Robert De Niro) wife of 40 blissful years. The cold specter of death casts a long shadow over the film from its earliest moments, and clearly precipitates the comical switch-up that gives the film its hook. As a response to his wife’s death and the implicit proof of his own mortality, he regresses to an adolescent state of recklessness, horniness, and self-destructiveness. Dirty Grandpa follows the template of a party-hardy buddy comedy, except in this instance, the loose-cannon frat boy type happens to be trapped in the shriveled husk we once knew to be Robert De Niro. When confronted with the inevitable erosion of his own flawed form, Dick retreats into a delusion wherein he can defy death by chugging beers and banging coeds until the end of time. Directly after coming home from his wife’s funeral, Dick shaves his beard, apparently as a symbol of his total abandonment of the dignity that comes with aging; he calls his grandson Jason into his house from the living room, where he is seated in the La-Z-Boy, yankin’ one out. He is a changed man.