(On Cable TV, November 2016) Anyone wishing for a distaff counterpart to 2014’s That Awkward Moment will be fulfilled by How to be Single … although one wonders if anyone else will be. Squarely set in the “ensemble romantic comedy set in New York and featuring up-and-coming actors” sub-genre, How to be Single incoherently examines the life of young singles in contemporary NYC, going for comic set pieces, an uplifting ending, actors using their charm to salvage a subpar script and other familiar elements. Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie and Leslie Mann are the main characters, even though they get a lot of help from supporting players. The third act is a quasi-refreshing blend of relationships cut short, especially for the nominal main character who decides to go hiking rather than settle for unsatisfactory relationships. The film may or may not try to subvert the convention of romantic comedy, but it’s not too clear whether it wants to, or succumbs to expediency in order to wrap things up. It does have a few laughs; Rebel Wilson gets her share by playing essentially the same character as in the Pitch Perfect series, while Jason Mantzoukas makes a stronger impression than his limited screen time would suggest. Otherwise, it’s a mostly unremarkable film—funny while it plays, forgettable when it ends and not irritating enough to earn a bad review. At least the lead actresses get a paycheck, solidify their persona, prove that they can carry a movie and then move on to the next thing. It could have been worse.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Comedy is intensely subjective, and it’s hard to find a better example of this than Dirty Grandpa, which had me chuckling and smiling throughout despite earning atrocious reviews from just about any serious movie critic. How to explain it? I can’t. I can only report that Dirty Grandpa manages to create, fairly early on, an atmosphere in which nearly every scabrous or raunchy gag gets a reaction. Drugs at a funeral, and a sexually obsessed retiree? From that moment on, it just gets dumber and funnier. From afar, it’s easy to claim this vulgar and meaningless film as a nadir for Robert de Niro, but if you’re under the film’s charm, his performance as a perverted old man looking for the sexual experience he denied himself until his wife’s death is nothing short of a go-for-broke exercise in deliberate offensiveness. (More intriguingly, it plays with some deeply held social convictions of how a senior should act like, giving Dirty Grandpa at least a veneer of honest transgression.) Alongside such a ferocious committal to comedy, co-star Zak Efron merely has to stay put and react appropriately. Great supporting performances by Aubrey Plaza (playing a far more active kind of comedy than she usually does) as a grandpa-chaser and Jason Mantzoukas as an unrepentant drug dealer both add a lot to the film. I’m never going to seriously argue that Dirty Grandpa is a good movie—it’s by-the-number comedy, made more daring by pushing the boundaries of vulgarity and throwing old-person jokes in the mix for added offensiveness. There are some lengthy lulls, and the secret to appreciating de Niro’s performance is forgetting his Academy Awards entirely. But here’s the terrible truth: the film made me laugh, and it made me laugh a fair amount more than many of the most respected films of the past year or so. I half-suspect that I’ll see Dirty Grandpa again in the future and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote this review. In the meantime, though, I just have to think about de Niro’s gleefully crude character to get a quick smile.