Roger Ebert called Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange “a paranoid right-wing fantasy” upon its stateside release in 1972, stating that the film celebrates “the nastiness of its hero” rather than its purported intent to oppose bureaucratic institutions. Indeed, the cult of Alex DeLarge devotees became so pervasive that Warner Bros. pulled the film from British theaters following several violent assaults inspired by Alex and his droogs’ actions and threats against Kubrick’s family from protestors.
While these points could hardly seem further removed from Dirty Grandpa at the outset, it’s director Dan Mazer’s use of the fourth movement from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony during the film’s climactic chase sequence that’s of interest here, which was also used by Kubrick to conclude A Clockwork Orange, just as Alex states he’s been “cured.” Perhaps it’s also because Dirty Grandpa, written by John Phillips, is a paranoid right-wing fantasy about squashed political correctness, doled out by a foul-mouthed baby boomer named Dick (Robert De Niro) who just wants to “fuck, fuck, fuck” following the death of his wife after 40 years of marriage and “15 years without getting laid.”
As in Judd Apatow’s films, crassness is boasted as shamelessness, and calculated sentimentality is dressed up as empathy. The doofus this go-round is Jason (Zac Efron), a straightlaced twentysomething who “looks like Abercrombie fucked Fitch”; he ditched his dreams of becoming a photographer to take a job at his father David’s (Dermot Mulroney) law firm years ago and has been dutifully responding to the beck and call of his nagging fiancé, Meredith (Julianne Hough), ever since. The out from this suburban hell world is, of course, Grandpa Dick, whom Jason agrees to drive to his home in Florida, though the pair end up at Daytona Beach instead, where they run the gamut of blackout nights and numerous walks of shame.
But the premise is merely a pretext for an increasingly ugly series of confrontations that use a character’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, or body type as a joke. After meeting a pair of women (Zoey Deutch’s artsy, demure Shadia and Aubrey Plaza’s playful, slutty Lenore), Dick sizes up their friend, Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), for “being so gay.” When Bradley responds with disdain, saying, “I’m also black,” Dick replies: “Yeah, that’s funny too.”
Later, at a beachside surf shop, Jason and Dick are startled by gun-toting Tan Pam (Jason Mantzoukas), who unloads a clip into one of the store’s walls as a joke. When Jason warns that he could have hurt someone outside, Tan Pam responds: “It’s Florida; these people don’t matter.” The line’s phrasing deliberately summons the Black Lives Matter movement and nearly challenges the viewer not to immediately think of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis; at least, were the film not merely gutless with its invocations, it would have such events more consciously, and thoughtfully, on its mind.
The film’s pinnacle of boastful tastelessness involves a rumble outside a nightclub between Dick and a “crew” of black gang members, which ends with the old man torturing one of its members into an apology for his earlier taunting of Bradley. Turns out, Dick was just joshing Bradley; he actually doesn’t tolerate discrimination, unless it’s under his own auspice as a good-natured ribbing. Even worse, a subsequent sequence has Dick making amends with the gang and being licensed to say “niggaz” during karaoke.
Because of De Niro’s hostility, the scene unintentionally recalls Travis Bickle’s unexplored racism in Taxi Driver, another violent, ’70s tale of folkloric masculinity that couches itself within conservative rhetoric by relishing its lead character’s fetishistic moralism. Like Travis (and Alex) before him, Dick “privileges single acts of violence as vehicles of individual redemption,” to steal a line from cultural critic Douglas Kellner. But since this is a comedy, his violence is largely verbal, dismantling “cock-blockers” and “pussy-boy” inclinations with the gusto of an enraged roughneck who’s just read The Atlantic’s article on “The Coddling of the American Mind.”
The film’s only inspired bit takes Dick to see an old pal, Stinky (Danny Glover), at a retirement home. There, Stinky is found sitting in front of a television shouting, “Yeah, fuck ’em up, Alf!” The scene playfully doubles as a self-knowing critique, since Stinky’s obsessions lie with past generations of pop culture and, by extension, America itself, much like the entirety of Dirty Grandpa. But, as Winston Churchill once said, “even fools are right sometimes,” and the bulk of Dirty Grandpa is aggressively foolish. That includes the film’s climax, which emptily restages the comparable scene from The Graduate, and provides an errant reference to ISIS for good, faux-provocative measure. Once true love wins and white-sanctioned tolerance rules, Dirty Grandpa finally emerges as something chillingly akin to the unholy love child of Judd Apatow and Donald Trump.