A decade or so ago, Samuel L Jackson found himself at the centre of a minor controversy when, during a junket interview for Django Unchained, he tried to force a journalist to say the n-word. The journalist kept pushing back, but Jackson threatened to walk out of the interview if he didn’t. To his credit, the young man stuck to his guns, while Jackson was correctly criticised online for being a bully. The same exchange is recreated beat-for-beat in a different setting in director-star Bill Burr’s new Netflix ‘comedy’ Old Dads, about three middle-aged guys whose entire lives seem to revolve around how their freedom of expression is being curtailed in an increasingly PC world.
In India, we’d call people like them ‘uncles’ — a descriptor that isn’t so much about the greys on one’s head as it is about the grey matter inside it. Uncles are somehow responsible for every problem in the world, from random parking disputes to the rise of the right-wing in democratic politics. They’re entitled men who instead of evolving with the times would rather belittle and badger those who are willing to.
This is exactly the sort of arrogance that compels Jack (Burr) and his best buds, played by Bobby Cannavale and Bokeem Woodbine, to corner their woke co-worker into saying the n-word while they’re driving to work together. Little do they know that their boss has installed hidden cameras in the car to catch them doing exactly something like this, desperate as he is to find an excuse to ‘liberate’ them from their jobs. And they walk right into it.
But Old Dads behaves as if Jack and his friends are the victims of illegal surveillance here, and not the perpetrators of motivated harassment. And that’s essentially the biggest problem with this film. Forget being unfunny — there are literally zero laughs to be found here — Old Dads is so under-confident about its own ideologies that it can’t help but pit its central characters against people who are just as ethically suspect as themselves.
For instance, when a man with a vape tells Jack that he can’t smoke, it opens the door for Jack to point out the irony of the situation. But would he have been been able to make the same argument if the guy wasn’t vaping in his face? Or, consider the scene in which Jack complains about being bought out of his own company by a millennial ‘disruptor’. This guy could’ve actually had some great ideas about business, but he is presented as some kind of airhead who ‘brags’ about having led 15 startups in five years, once again inviting Jack’s ridicule.
The principal at his son’s school is aghast when Jack calls her the c-word in front of people, but instead of letting her be a regular person who was justifiably angry at being insulted, Old Dads reveals her to be some kind of criminal towards the end. But here’s the thing, the movie thinks that it is absolving Jack’s bad behaviour by pointing out the hypocrisy of people who think they’re better than him, but by doing this, is it suggesting that it’s suddenly okay to call someone the c-word for being a stickler just because they also happen to have committed financial fraud?
The empty provocation of Old Dads begins in the first 60 seconds, when Jack declares that he doesn’t whine about having had a rough childhood ‘because that’s what vegans do’. Over the course of the next hour-and-a-half, he destroys his career, ruins his marriage, and risks his son’s future because of his antics. None of this would be a problem if the movie wasn’t so blindly determined to project him as the victim. Jack can think of himself as the martyr all he wants — even villains are the heroes of their own story — but it becomes a problem when the movie starts taking his side.
The best provocative comedians are able to put into words ideas that regular people are too afraid to even think; they’re able to expose hypocrisy and elicit laughs in the same breath. Old Dads, on the other hand, is like listening to the unchained rants of a man convinced that everybody is on his side, when they’ve actually left him behind years ago. It’s like an extension of Burr’s recent standup material, which is just as offensive as the stuff that Dave Chappelle has been putting out, but doesn’t attract as much outrage because not enough people are aware it exists.
Director – Bill Burr
Cast – Bill Burr, Bobby Cannavale, Bokeem Woodbine
Rating – 0.5/5
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