Every so often, a critic stumbles on a realization that, unpopular though it may be, they know is a hill they may die on. Myself, I’ve come to believe that Zac Efron is the next Cary Grant. And believe me, it feels really weird to announce this in a review for Dirty Grandpa. The movie, as you can probably guess, stinks out loud, but Efron delivers what may be the best performance in the worst picture of 2016.
I really do mean this, though: Zac Efron is a Cary Grant-level talent, with the classic good looks of a comedic straight man or a romantic lead, but a willingness to take himself less than seriously. Precious few actors can seem equally at ease in preppy golf attire or nothing but a Georgia Tech Buzz Bee codpiece, and Efron is chief among them. The poster is not wrong when it places him into Dustin Hoffman’s old spot.
Efron is also an actor who can go toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro. Despite his recent habit of showing up in seemingly anything that will pay, De Niro is still a top-notch actor himself, and not all of his co-stars can play back to him as strongly as Efron manages.
The movie itself is basically a buddy raunch-comedy; the recently-bereaved Dick Kelly (De Niro) tricks his engaged grandson Jason (Efron) into driving him from Atlanta down to Spring Break in Daytona Beach less than a week before his wedding. Jason’s fiancée, Meredith (Julianne Hough), seems more a match based on their fathers’ partnership in the same law firm Jason abandoned his aspirations as a photographer to work in, and Dick thinks Jason is about to make a mistake. This doesn’t really get discussed until well into the movie, but I can’t honestly it a spoiler when you’d have to be pretty wasted not to pick up what’s going on right from the start. Then again, getting pretty wasted might not be a bad idea in general before watching.
There are some things Dirty Grandpa isn’t completely transparent about; ironically, they’re mostly things should be clearer up front. There’s a lot about the relationships between Jason, Dick, and Jason’s dad David (Dermot Mulroney) that gets introduced right before it pays off. The result feels kind of like that guy who tells a joke, but keeps backing up to fill in things he left out, and you end up wishing he just hadn’t started at all.
And it’s not like there’s nothing funny at all; Jason Mantzoukas is probably more entertaining here than usual, and individual scenes can be entertaining out of context, but writer John Phillips and director Dan Mazer show no ability to sew these bits up into any coherent or engaging whole. They try to smooth over the creepiness of Dick lusting after Aubrey Plaza’s Lenore by making her just as interested in sleeping with him, but then still act as if there’s anything stopping these two from just getting it on and over with. And Zoey Deutch is given even less to work with as Jason’s love interest.
But as lowbrow and unmotivated as Dirty Grandpa is in scene after scene, Zac Efron keeps coming back and giving it his all. I can’t help but respect his talent and his professionalism, even as I mourn the roles he keeps finding himself in.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.