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"Old Dads" has a great cast, but it's barely a movie. That's a shame because it's the directorial debut of Bill Burr. Though mainly known as a comedian, talk show guest, and podcaster, Burr has distinguished himself as one of the best standups-turned-actors of his generation, consistently turning in performances in films and TV series that are more thoughtful than were probably necessary to get the job done, and sometimes outright impressive. His work as Migs Mayfield, a former Imperial sharpshooter turned mercenary in "The Mandalorian," was one of that show's highlights, building to a dramatic climax that echoed Christoph Waltz's final scene in "Django Unchained."
Standup comics directing themselves in projects they also wrote are at risk of making something that feels like a long standup comedy routine, awkwardly retrofitted with characters and a smidge of plot, while lacking a strong style and point-of-view that would make it feel like something other than a brand extension. "Old Dads," about three middle-aged Los Angeles men who become fathers decades after giving up on the possibility, is that movie.
Like "F is for Family," the animated Netflix series created by and starring Burr, and like a lot of Burr's early standup before he aged out of griping and became more nuanced, "Old Dads" is two-thirds a satire on "political correctness"—a loaded phrase which, as often practiced in standup, amounts to not being able to say anything at any given moment without encountering consequences. The remaining third is a meandering midlife-crisis buddy movie in which Burr's character Jack Kelly and his two best friends and business partners (Bokeem Woodbine, Bobby Cannavale) find themselves drifting and stumbling through life after selling the vintage sports jersey replica business they founded together.
After the sale, the partners are kept on staff and made to watch as everyone born before 1988 is fired (a potential age discrimination lawsuit goldmine, though the movie treats it as a fait accompli), then becomes a parody of 21st-century tech bro and new media cliches. The young wannabe-guru boss, Aspin Bell (Miles Robbins), inundates his elders with disruptor culture buzz phrases while building a cult of personality around himself. As if that wasn't enough to drive the combative and self-righteous Kelly into a frothing snit, Kelly and his wife Linda (Kate Aselton) are having difficulty at their son's elite New Age-y private school because Kelly's rooted-in-the-'70s version of parenting keeps clashing with the staff, administrators, and the other parents, a gaggle of soft progressive Yuppies who teach kids to put their emotions and sensitivities over everything and everyone else.
The "political correctness" part of "Old Dads" plays like a watered-down and somewhat more self-aware equivalent of one of those TV specials that are aimed at political reactionaries and that spawned the "triggered" meme. It follows the same playbook as a lot of Los Angeles-based, post-millennium comedy, going for cheap laughs by having characters blurt out inappropriate things at inopportune moments, then having bystander characters (often Linda) cover for the writers by explaining that you simply can't do stuff like that while nudging the audience to feel that the world is cramping the politically incorrect character's style. It's a shame how coddled everyone has become, says "Old Dads."
Early in the movie, Jack gets into hot water at school for being two minutes late to pick up his son, incurring a fine and chastisement by the principal, whom he calls the C-word. To show contrition, he has to join in planning a fundraising party with his pals, who also have kids at the school, and emcee its charity auction. As with most such material in "Old Dads," Jack is depicted as a fundamentally decent guy who just lost his cool for a minute, while everyone who had an issue with his outburst is hypersensitive and overreacting; the movie also suggests that Jack’s punishment is part of a scheme to extract free labor from the parents. During the party planning session, Jack and the guys are asked to suggest a theme, which gets tweaked by another parent so that an all-trans waitstaff will be hired; the guys don't see the problem with calling them "trannys," and here, too, they're the reasonable ones, or at least the not-bad-guys.
There's a lot of stuff like this in "Old Dads.” Most of it is like a standup bit that starts with "Don't you hate it when," then follows with a petty grievance that makes the comic seem like the one blowing things out of proportion. This is typified by a scene at a gym, where the men lob gendered insults to hype each other up during weightlifting, and there are cutaways to women in the gym looking aghast and annoyed: it’s all very much from the point of view of Jack and the fellas, just guys being guys in a feminized world.
Cannavale saves most of his scenes, playing a henpecked husband and father whose wife snaps her fingers to jolt him into submitting. He thinks he's a hip and forever-young man; he keeps sidling up to younger characters, peppering them with ten-year-old slang phrases, and trying to act "down." Woodbine fares less well because the script hasn't thought through his midlife crisis over finding out that his much younger girlfriend is pregnant. There's a stretch in the final third where the depressed and out-of-touch friends go out for a night on the town; it wants to be gritty and real (like John Cassavetes' "Husbands"). But it doesn't have the nerve or knowhow to get there, although there is a funny bit with Kelly seeming to muse on the shambles of his life in a philosophical soliloquy, whereupon a flash of young flesh appears in the frame and the movie reveals that he's paid for a lap dance but isn't even paying attention to it. This is a film that could've been much more than it is.
On Netflix now.
Bill Burr as Jack
Katie Aselton as Leah
Reign Edwards as Britney
Miles Robbins as Aspen Bell
Jackie Tohn as Cara
Cody Renee Cameron as Chantel
Justene Alpert as Caprice
Abbie Cobb as Judy
Cameron Kelly as Amelia
Angela Gulner as Mimi
Chelsea Marie Davis as Monica Crawford
Justin Miles as Travis Romine
Erin Wu as Diamelle