Dirty Grandpa: Why Am I Laughing?
Let’s set the scene. A funeral. Daytime. A comedic scene is about to ensue. You expect this because Zac Efron and Robert De Niro are in the film. You expect this because of the heavily-edited (even in the red band) trailers and taglines such as “Naughty is relative,” “They’re hitting the road. And everything in it,” “Lose your way, find your manhood.” You expect this because the film is called Dirty Grandpa. What you don’t expect, or at least shouldn’t expect, is this:
Cousin Nick: “Fuckin' sucks dick about grandma, huh? Old woman fuckin' murdered like that.”
Jason Kelley: “I think she had cancer.”
Cousin Nick: “We'll never know the truth.”
Jason Kelley: “We absolutely know the truth. Grandma had cancer for ten years.”
Cousin Nick: “You don't just die from cancer, Jason.”
Within a single dialogue scene between Efron’s Jason Kelly and Adam Pally’s side character ‘Cousin Nick’ the modes and methods of the modern comedy are shifted. Even more so than other recent narrative comedy features, Dirty Grandpa disregards the structure of the joke, build-up of its crassness, management of its content. It is tasteless; a fucked-up parental advisory play only interested in the inherent abhorrence of its words, never considering an organization of them. The quoted interplay is one of the initial conversations in the movie, an exchange of words seemingly built for a mid-film belly laugh climax yet tossed in as character introduction. It’s bold, repulsive, and hilarious.
Yes…hilarious. Louis C.K. warned of the misuse of the word, but what’s a film that misuses the pitter-patter punctuation of profanity? It’s like creating an entire novel out of periods, exclamation points, commas, and question marks. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. And yet, against all odds, against the infinite void that is a laugh-o-meter in the modern Hollywood comedy, Dirty Grandpa isn’t just pure, decadent filth. It’s funny as hell. It’s so funny it makes you question why “funny as hell” is a phrase, because if Dirty Grandpa is anything, it’s a movie that would laugh - penis first, no less - right in the face of the tortured masses within such a zone. Dan Mazer’s (of Ali G and Borat fame) grandpa/grandson bonding session is successful because of these questions. Not asked by the movie, no, but by you, yourself, the viewer. Because throughout, no matter the scene, circumstance, and setting, you’ll be questioning (whether the assaultive experience works for you or not) just how overt the vulgar comedy can make itself, how it’s so goddamn great at what it does, and above all, just why in the fuck am I laughing?
This is more than mere vulgarity, however. Dirty Grandpa can’t be compared to The Hangover or Neighbors or the 21 Jump Street revamp. Those films have conventional narrative schemes, comedic set-pieces, various sets of characters. In Dirty Grandpa, there are people like Efron’s straight-face lawyer type and those like Dick, Robert De Niro’s no-holds-barred, balls-in comedic tidal wave. There’s no in-between, and the only arcs of any kind revolve around crossing over from the innocent to the obscene, committing to pleasures found in the bawdy and lewd and how it signifies a real transition into manhood. By rendering profanity as normalized (you’ll be desensitized within three minutes), Mazer discusses the wholesome poetry of the potty-mouth, and its gateway into an understanding of self not found in studying for an unsatisfactory career path or an unloving marriage. Maybe exposing your dirty side isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe standardizing the generosity of talking about bodily functions and sexual behavior isn’t so bad. Maybe it’ll even lead to a happier existence.
Yes, please, take it in. Such a message jumps right past the moralizing of “don’t lose your dinosaur” in Step Brothers, careening towards actions of hardcore drug usage, possession, infidelity, and resisting arrest to celebrate community and the self-confidence found after that immersion. The catalyst for becoming an individual, is indeed, via smoking crack and waking up with a swastika made of ejaculating penises drawn on your face. Who would’ve thought? Dan Mazer’s film redefines good heartedness, producing emotional resonance through the most explicit of one-liners and heightening its comedy within a world which doesn’t understand any kind of filter. Instead of aiming for a laugh, it throws out raw, insidious information in a big greasy pile and forces us to reconcile with it, asking of our capacity to laugh (or not), and what that says about our own palette, our understanding of the society around us.
To say that I wasn’t laughing would be a flat-out lie; I was hysterically in fits throughout Dirty Grandpa. Tossing aside the implications of the demeaning, distasteful language, the profane stream welling up in my ears was a unique kind of music that I would’ve never expected being sourced from the vocal chords of Robert De Niro. The man himself, in an interview with Film Comment, aptly compared his Dirty Grandpa preparation to his work with Mamet, and the ‘fuck/shit/piss etc.’ sailor mouth of a character truly juggles this outburst of juvenility, let out like a flood stream after the death of his wife, like an actor in a lead role being given the open stage. When Bobby De Niro, of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas fame, flares his tongue in Dirty Grandpa, there’s nothing quite like it; a cosmic expansion of the film’s inherently dirty outlook and a flailing, raging hurricane right on the edge of its eye. And the film isn’t funny because it’s particularly witty; it’s funny because it’s honest – about what society finds funny, what the world takes offense in, and what it expects of us (which is nothing).
Only when you come to terms with Dirty Grandpa’s antics can you truly accept its barnyard wisdom and perverted beauty on its own. Mazer’s film utilizes lewd humor in a fast-track towards commentary of its content, but it also then discusses death’s permanence *within* such a lens, culminating in one of the foulest yet most sympathetic treatises of mortality that I’ve seen in recent years. De Niro’s Dick Kelly isn’t only partying and fucking in response to the loss of a beloved loved one; he’s fucking because he understands that his life is towards the end of its line, and why not use your body for wonderful, carnal pleasures while you still have function (and control) over it? And his grandson, while on the road with him, realizes that life is too short to waste with joyless occupations and loveless marriages. It’s about finding someone you truly connect with and love, chasing your dreams, and committing to it all. And when the journey ends, it isn’t the end of the world, but a gateway towards a new one. That Dirty Grandpa concludes with a literal climax, complete with an aching, bittersweet, uproarious final line, suggests that the comedown will one day dissipate with the physical form. Soon there will be nothing; enjoy what comes *after* you cum while you can, because life is delightful thing.
Why am I laughing? I’ve realized such warmth and joy perishes with me. Might as well have a good ole’ chuckle now.