Hear me out: why Dirty Grandpa isn’t a bad movie

Dirty Grandpa has an 11% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated for five Golden Raspberries and has an almost immaculate attendance record on critics’ worst of the year lists.

Those who reviewed it were at pains to point out how filthy they found the experience. Mark Kermode needed a shower, Mike Ryan wanted to burn the prints and Glenn McDonald likened it to torture porn. For some, its chart-topping god-awfulness wasn’t just confined to 2016. Deadline’s Pete Hammond called it not just the worst movie Robert De Niro had been in but “the worst movie anyone has ever been in”.

Reader, I liked it. I liked it at the time and, watching it again last night, I liked it even more. It wasn’t just me. Dirty Grandpa’s CinemaScore – which assesses opening night audience reaction on a scale of A (for excellent) to F (for frightful) – is B. That’s worse than Joker (B+) and an improvement on Little Fockers (B-).

These are, perhaps, revealing comparisons. For what really condemned Dirty Grandpa in the eyes of the critics was its position at the fag-end of De Niro’s decade horriblis: a prolific run of rubbish dotted with just enough class to remind you of the time before he began dropping his trousers. In particular, Dirty Grandpa came in the wake of Last Vegas and The Intern: laughless horror-shows notable only for uncomfortable elderly tumescence.

Dirty Grandpa, by contrast, embraces old erections. De Niro’s character has spent 15 chaste years caring for his wife, to whom he was faithful and devoted for 40. Now she’s died, he’s unabashed about trying to seize whatever life is left – particularly if it’s young and female. So he enlists Zac Efron’s uptight lawyer to drive him to Florida for Spring Break, in the hope his hot young grandson will be an effective wingman. But Efron is the opposite – until his drink is spiked, he inhales epic amounts of crack and wakes on a beach naked save for a novelty thong and a swastika of penises drawn on his forehead, before having to FaceTime his parents, fiancee and rabbi. Is that upcoming wedding really a good idea? And was grandpa’s road trip really as self-serving as it seemed?

Dan Mazer (a longtime Sacha Baron Cohen collaborator) and his team are firmly on pop’s side. Not only is De Niro an unlikely Jack Reacher, duffing up a gang who dare to threaten a black gay friend, he’s also filthily sage about the perils of sleepwalking into marriage and not sowing your wild oats while you have the chance.

De Niro gives it serious welly, grinding and leering, reeling off endless dirty pearls of wisdom, half Larry David, half Sid James. What seemed to some like an Oscar-winner embarrassing himself looks to me a bravely-committed comedic turn.

The other performances almost match him. Somewhere along the line, Efron surprise-mutated into one of Hollywood’s best straight men and his evolution here from squeaky-clean law bore to nude batty party fiend – never quite losing the panic in his eyes – is tremendous.

Elsewhere, predictable casting is leant on to good effect. Aubrey Plaza, as a college girl who trades amazingly frank banter with De Niro is as winning as she’s ever been, while Jason Mantzoukas does his usual crazed cameo (this time as Pam, a drug-dealing father of six and mayoral candidate) – and does it better than ever.

There are problems. Zoey Deutch’s dewy love interest is tedious, Julianne Hough’s pushy fiancee over-emphasised. It’s baggy and unfocused. The extended cut (which is now the most widely available) feels about 400 times too long. Some scenes simply flop – including, sadly, the opening, as well as a climactic “flex-off”. Danny Glover is underused as an army buddy reduced to cross-stitching porn in a care home. Only one in three gags lands – but there are hundreds of them.

This is not a film which could have been made today. A slapstick sequence on a beach in which Efron is mistaken for a child molester would, rightly, be first on the cutting room floor. Grandpa’s position when it comes to minorities seems, to put it delicately, confused. But there’s a scattershot approach to sacred cows that can feel even more bracing than it did five years ago.

I’ve seen a lot of bad films in my life. Any critic who thinks Dirty Grandpa is a contender for worst film of the year isn’t just lucky, they’re a showboating snob. To fret that farce is beneath an artist betrays an underestimation of what raising a laugh entails. If I had to rewatch this or The Irishman, I know I’d go for the one in which America’s most iconic actor looks like he’s having a stupid amount of fun.

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