“Dirty Grandpa” tries too hard to be THAT movie. The quote machine of the year. A seminal comedy of the decade. You can see the gears grinding to make you laugh, and painfully so on occasion. You can see the gears grinding to make you care about a slushy romance or a disaffected father and son. This is the sort of boorish comedy that thinks it’s earned the right to be sentimental just because there’s a wedding at stake. However, bless it, this is also the sort of boorish comedy where no taboo is safe. In spite of itself, “Dirty Grandpa” is pretty damn funny some of the time.
Zac Efron and Robert DeNiro make a fine team, and while I don’t quite buy them as grandpa and grandson, their rhythm is true. From Seth Rogen and Dave Franco to Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan, Efron has made a habit of gelling well with a number of actors and it’s no different here. He’s a stuck-up lawyer’s kid, dolled up with pleated khakis and a boffo supply of Lacoste sweaters, allowing DeNiro to do most of the mugging. The horny old man is grieving for his recently deceased wife, but he’s also ready to “get back out there” as his dearly beloved told him. Aubrey Plaza is a hoot as a come-hither college student with a thing for old thangs, and Zoey Deutch is adorable but less of a hoot as her friend and Efron’s former classmate from his grainier photography days. She’s a reminder of the boy that was, who cared about the world and sought to capture it through a camera lens. Predictably, she’s the girl for him, not that shrew back home (Julianne Hough) nagging him about “her” wedding.
Any time the script gets serious, it fails miserably. Any time the script gets salacious, well, it usually succeeds. DeNiro’s military vet is a helluva wordsmith, ripe with decades of good burns he can finally unleash, and when he drags the party pooper grandson to Spring Break at Daytona Beach they encounter all manner of bizarre creatures and harebrained scenarios. Accidental or otherwise, Efron’s sheltered naif smokes crack, pops Xanax, farts in a microphone, and wakes up half-naked on the beach with only a fuzzy bee around his fuzzy acres. Then there’s a peppy drug dealer with a dozen jobs and a peculiar camaraderie with local cops that could only exist in the movies. This character, played with offensive zeal by Jason Mantzoukas, is an obvious stab at manufacturing a scene-stealing favorite. Someone didn’t tell the filmmakers such an organic phenomenon can’t really be manufactured.
By the end, we’ve endured not one, not two, not three, but four heart-to-heart dialogues wrapping up three generations of family dysfunction, not to mention the nail-biting conclusion to the aforementioned slushy romance. A shallow story like this should stick to what it does best. It’s not a Judd Apatow dramedy. It’s a ribald buddy flick that skirts by on the crude charms of a skirt-chasing Robert DeNiro, Zac Efron’s devotion to humiliation, and Aubrey Plaza’s send-up of slutty stereotypes. “Dirty Grandpa” is good for nothing more than a good laugh. I only wish it knew that.