I’m far from a qualified psychologist, but I doubt the experts would disagree: Robert De Niro exhibits acute workaholic tendencies. He worked steadily in Hollywood for over two decades when, in the mid-1990s, he became an entrepreneur. He made strides in the restaurant business, real estate, and hotels. Before long, he’d established his beloved Manhattan neighborhood TriBeCa as an incubator of financial and artistic success. He was made, and married to his work. (He’s never been much of a “ladies’ man.”)
Apparently still restless, he remade his onscreen persona. Four years after playing the epitome of professional sadism in Heat, the formally magnetic monster had become an adorable clown. First with the Analyze movies and then the Fockers trilogy, we were introduced to a comedian nobody would’ve guessed lie just beneath the shark-tooth grin of Mean Streets‘s Johnny Boy.
Some (or maybe most) assumed one of the great actors of his generation had simply cashed in. But did De Niro need the money? Perhaps the lifelong heavy finally found a hobby—something that made him laugh.
That’s certainly the case with the gleefully transgressive Dirty Grandpa. De Niro plays Dick, a recently widowed patriarch with a shadowy past. In apparent mourning, he ropes his grandson Jason (Zac Efron) into transporting him to a retirement home. A grinning shell of a man, Jason is a buttoned-up corporate lawyer, unhappily wealthy, and days away from a wedding of his own. The trip turns quickly awry when Jason discovers the old man is, inexplicably, a belligerent, foulmouthed horndog. The mismatched pair soon run into an enticing trio—Jason’s earnest high-school flame, her sexpot friend (Aubrey Plaza), and a sentient stereotype of a gay, black millennial—and it’s off to spring break, all while dodging calls from Jason’s severely Aryan bride to be.
Dirty Grandpa was directed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s longtime writing partner, and most of its taboo-breaking is refreshingly dirty fun. And while the leads are a bit miscast—De Niro lacks the arthritic lechery of, say, Michael Douglas; and Efron, fantastically funny in Neighbors, isn’t much of a straight man—the professional comedians shine. As a life-of-the-party dealer even the local police find incorrigible, Jason Mantzoukas (a fixture of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade) is a delight. But it’s Aubrey Plaza—impossibly sexy—who steals the movie as a party girl with a thing for older men. Her delivery of a Henry Miller joke is the kind of tossed-off improv that made Adam McKay’s Anchorman a thing to behold.
But whenever the fiancée character appears, the movie takes an ill-advised turn into misogyny. As written, she’s the kind of castrating bitch that threatens to consume her mate’s soul and suffers gross indignities merely for existing. A third-act twist regarding Dick’s motivation confirms just how twisted and dangerous terms like “liberators” and “the oppressed” can be in the face of absurd military logic. That Dick is on a mission from the beginning is no surprise—he repeatedly hints that his Army post was more than functionary. That that mission is executed with the same diligence and ferocity of a top-secret operation in the Nicaraguan jungle is especially alarming given the terms of engagement. Extreme prejudice, indeed.
De Niro, though, seems to be having a lot of fun.
Dirty Grandpa. Rated R. 102 minutes. Starring Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, and Aubrey Plaza. Directed by Dan Mazar. Opens wide January 22, 2016.