The king of (bad) comedy: why is Robert De Niro addicted to awful movies?

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At least once a week, after my kids have gone to sleep, I like to take an hour or so to indulge in my personal relaxation program. I lie down, take a few deep breaths, and once I’m feeling centred, sift through negative online reviews for products, services and people I have no emotional investment in.

To be clear, this isn’t because I am a psychopath. Or because I otherwise take any particular pleasure in cruelty. Rather, I love reading these reviews because it is so reassuring to know there are people out there who are more deranged than myself. Which is so much healthier than being a psychopath.

Robert De Niro (with Sebastian Maniscalco) in new film About My Father: 80 years old and still making terrible comedies.Credit: Marija Ercegovac

Take, for example, a one-star review I stumbled across for a fancy chocolate shop. The shop’s crime, according to the indignant review writer, was a sales assistant’s refusal to GIFT A FREE SAMPLE CHOCOLATE TO A DOG. There is nothing better than reading something like that and thinking, “Well, I might be mad but I’d never complain about that on the internet.”

Anyway, a few weeks ago I found myself watching some fairly unkind reviews of Zac Efron’s allegedly new face. To my mind, the guy looks totally fine. Sure, he isn’t as pretty as he was in 2007, but he also isn’t 18 anymore. It was Zac Efron reviews and the dark power of internet algorithms that led me on a slow and meandering path to something called Dirty Grandpa.

Dirty Grandpa is a 2016 movie starring Zac Efron’s (allegedly) old face and Robert De Niro. I had not heard of it until this fateful night. The comments online were unkind but also… intriguing. I was particularly captivated by a review by one Stephen Elias who wrote that the film is: “Very political. Capitalism is bad, anti-2nd amendment, anti-Fox News… so many more leftist views. If you like an 85-year-old guy chasing a 17-year-old girl to screw, then this is the movie for you.”

Although his description wasn’t super appealing, it sounded kinda similar to the plot of Primary Colors, so I decided to watch anyway. Plus it had Robert De Niro, noted serious actor in it. How bad could it be?

The premise of Dirty Grandpa is pretty simple. Robert De Niro plays a recently widowed grandfather who tricks his grandson, Zac Efron, into driving him across the US while screaming about vaginas and tampons. They stop along the way so that Zac Efron can smoke crack and Robert De Niro can be racist and homophobic.

Still intrigued? When Zac Efron talks passionately about his job in commercial law and suggests his grandfather would like it, Robert De Niro says he’d rather “let Queen Latifah shit in my mouth from a f—ing hot air balloon.” When Zac Efron dresses for a round of golf, Robert De Niro tells him he looks like he’s attending a “buttf—er convention”.

As I watched it, I began to feel confused. I’m not a dude so I’ve never made it through the Godfather films or Raging Bull. I think this is because, like many other women, if I particularly wanted to see men behaving badly I’d just go into the city on a Saturday night. But I was pretty sure that De Niro was regarded as a once in a generation talent.

Wasn’t this the guy who was renowned for his physical and emotional transformations and for the subtlety with which he was able to show inner turmoil? Wasn’t he able to communicate as much with a slight smirk as most of us could hope to convey in an autobiographical monologue called This is What I Am Feeling Right Now?

Why do you do this, Robert?: Zac Efron and De Niro in 2016’s Dirty Grandpa.Credit: Bob Mahoney/Lionsgate

In the end I went through his IMDB page, wondering if I had been thinking of someone else. But the more I looked, the more clear it was that for every iconic performance De Niro has ever given there exists a counterweight of total rubbish.

Take Analyse This, for example. Analyse This is a completely charming film in which a committed De Niro bounces off the effervescent Billy Crystal in a series of genuinely funny interactions. It moves quickly and breezily through a ridiculous set-up and it works perfectly. But then consider Analyse That.

Consider too, Taxi Driver. Taxi Driver is amazing and terrifying and it is impossible to look away from De Niro. He is an electrifying, ticking bomb. But then turn your mind to Rocky and Bullwinkle. Or Last Vegas. Or New Year’s Eve. Or Meet the Parents. Or Meet the Fockers. Or Little Fockers. Or The Big Wedding.

Or, his latest, About My Father. Making awful comedy isn’t an occasional indulgence. De Niro is hooked. The guy is either bad at choosing projects, or just doesn’t care. And for that, he deserves a bad online review.

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