“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.
The film generates comedic friction between free-livin’ Dick and Jason, who appears to his randy grandfather as a tightly bound bundle of nerves. It’s a week before his wedding to a castrating shrew of a woman, the sort that exists only within studio comedies and invariably assume the form of Julianne Hough, and Dick can recognize that his grandson’s about to throw his life away. By the time the film joins them, it’s been a while since Jason and his pop-pop have been close, but Dick still remembers the teenager with dreams of shooting portraits for Time. Seeing that vision of youthful hope transmuted into a glaring reminder of all the opportunities he’s missed out on proves too much for Dick, and so he goes about remaking Jason in his own newly adopted hedonistic image. In playing wingman for Jason, he is in no small way playing wingman for himself.
And of course, sex is the graven object toward which the film directs all of its psychological toil. To Dick, sex is everything and everything is sex; virility is his life’s flame, and when he allows it to be extinguished by the ravages of time, he ceases to be a man, or exist at all. His obsession with putting his body parts into the body parts of young women is characterized by a single-mindedness usually ascribed to dogs, and perfectly encapsulated in a scene that finds him exclaiming to Jason, “I want to f*ck-f*ck-f*ck!” Dick exudes sexual aggression in every direction indiscriminately, often blowing off excess libido by prankishly thumbing his own grandson’s ass whenever he lets his guard down. He attempts to explain the sudden eruption of horndoggery away by revealing that his cherished wife, who he never cheated on once, requested that he “get back out there” with her dying breaths. Difficult as it may be to swallow that she would use her final moments on this planet to give her husband the A-OK to smash privates with other women, even if that is the case, Dick’s dramatic conversion seems abrupt. He’s grasping at something, and he’s desperate.
Most of the film is eaten up by a road trip to Daytona Beach that the two men undertake in order to secure willing sexual partners, with Dick performing literally death-defying feats of vitality and strength along the way. Turns out that Dick secretly spent most of his life with the Green Berets training insurgents overseas, a shocking reveal that clears a path for later scenes in which this 72-year-old man handily disposes of a half-dozen heavily armed gang members. One detour finds him essentially benching the already-hulking Jason with one arm in a flex-off against a pair of frat boys, and in another, he expertly maneuvers an ice-cream truck in a high-speed pursuit with the police. Dick must be an acutely comforting figure to a certain sort of person, living evidence that a man can advance into old age without losing touch with the things that, in the director’s cockeyed estimation, make him a man. In this R-rated Never Never Land, nobody has to age out of chasing skirt and getting loaded.
Beyond that, the film seems woefully unaware of the dark irony inherent in De Niro’s participation with this project in specifics. Dirty Grandpa is consumed by its preoccupation with reclaiming fading greatness, but stays blind to its role in robbing the crumbling titan De Niro of his remaining integrity as an actor. Few actors emblematize late-phase decline quite like De Niro; a few decades ago, he was delivering one or two immortal performances per year, captivating audiences with his combination of ferocious intensity and insightful nuance. He’d experiment with self-parody in the late ’90s and early ’00s with Analyze This and Meet The Parents, then transition to full slumming-it mode as the ’00s rolled on. He’s shown signs of life in his recent collaborations with David O. Russell in Silver Linings Playbook and Joy, but in most recent films, De Niro’s resigned frown has been a sad reminder of the compromises that aging demands. That Dirty Grandpa‘s casting director would tap De Niro for this aggressive denial of everything he stands for, and then reinforce how low he’s fallen by giving him so much embarrassing schlock to recite, is a gobsmackingly antithetical move just about on par with slaughtering a calf at a PETA sit-in.
What makes Dirty Grandpa a sophomoric fantasy where men sell themselves in order to smooth the transition into impotency instead of a brilliantly subversive black comedy (aside from shameful miscasting, and fart jokes) is its commitment to its own delusion. When the film nears its end and Jason nears his wedding day, he’s got a choice to make: He can either go through with the marriage and advance at his law firm, or throw it all away and live on a ship for a year with his boho college crush that he happens to run into outside Daytona. Under the tutelage of his vicariously invested grandpa, Jason pulls a reverse The Graduate and sabotages his own wedding at the last moment, fleeing to hop on the magic bus and live what we’re made to believe will be a more fulfilling, wholesome lifestyle. By the film’s own measure, this is a happy ending, though Jason has just torn several lives to shreds, including his own. But he gets to fulfill the all-too-common office-slave fantasy of blowing it all up and starting anew pursuing a personal passion, as blithely unrealistic as that might be.
The film ends the only way it possibly could: with a horrifyingly perverse sex scene between Robert De Niro and Aubrey Plaza. Having apparently developed an old-people fetish over the film’s hundred minutes, Plaza’s character ambushes Dick for some enthusiastic yet strategically clothed intercourse. It’s odd that the film would suddenly vaunt the markers of advanced age — keeping a Werther’s in your slacks pocket, loving Eisenhower — as sources of sex appeal, but that’s what this absurd scene demands in order to work. Dirty Grandpa culminates with the ultimate virile image in its depiction of sexual congress, the film’s final refutation of time’s emasculating effects. As the thong-clad Plaza straddles him and pleads with him to confess how old he is, De Niro grunts and growls to a crescendo. “Are you coming or dying?” she asks. As far as this film is concerned, those are the only two options, not for the moment, but for life itself. Instead of being straightforward and hastily muttering back, “I’m going through a lot of cognitive dissonance, contending with my deteriorating body even while it’s celebrated in a flagrant existential denial!” he simply mutters, “I don’t know.” Then the film cuts to black, and there’s nothing left.