Like Bill Maher if he were very bald and occasionally funny, 55-year-old actor, “rage comic,” and blue-collar man of the people Bill Burr is a Joe Rogan liberal whose entire career is based on mocking the hypocrisies of political correctness and telling millennials to get off his lawn. He’s the living personification of Principal Skinner saying, “Am I so out of touch? No. It’s the children who are wrong!,” but in a thick Boston accent.
With that in mind, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that Burr’s directorial debut is the story of a very bald and occasionally funny middle-aged man — played by Burr, in an inspired stroke of casting — who’s fed up with all the holier-than-thou bullshit of a modern world where everyone is just trying not to get into trouble; stand-ups don’t exactly tend to stretch themselves when they start making their own movies (Kumail Nanjiani’s first screenplay was about a Pakistan-born comic whose crush falls into a coma, Maher’s first movie was about an Islamophobic asshole who gets off on mocking people who believe in anything bigger than their own shit-eating smugness, etc.).
What is surprising about “Old Dads,” or at least about Burr’s decision to expand his brand into feature-length filmmaking, is that he puts him at the mercy of a character arc that’s dependent upon personal growth. Sure, Burr and Ben Tishler’s stultifyingly unfocused screenplay does everything in its power to obscure that arc (this is a simple three-act comedy that’s been plotted with all the logic and coherence of the January 6th insurrection), but the fact of the matter is that it obviously — inevitably — has to end with “Jack” realizing that he has to adapt or die.
Maybe the children aren’t entirely wrong. That admission might lead a cynic to accuse Burr of selling out, but there’s something kind of brave about his willingness to undermine the generational animosity at the heart of his act. At least, there would be if “Old Dads” weren’t just 104 laugh-free minutes of Burr inventing people to be mad at before capitulating to the fact that scooters are kind of fun.
Drawing from his own experience as a somewhat recent father, Burr roots “Old Dads” in the real and all too relatable anxiety of preparing kids for a world that you no longer understand. “But I’m not gonna whine about it,” Jack insists during the movie’s opening voiceover. “That’s what vegans do.” BOOM! Eat shit, vegans! Or is that not allowed because it came from an animal!? Fucking losers, trying to be healthy and save the planet. But I would probably hate — or, to better characterize Burr’s tone, be mildly annoyed by — vegans too if I convinced myself they were all Moby because my comic shtick demands I see everyone on Earth as the worst apotheosis of their kind. Then again, if that were my comic shtick, I might decide that my debut feature should be a heightened satire of some kind, and not a semi-grounded dramedy that careens between Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips in a misguided attempt to split the difference, but Burr is learning as he goes.
So is Jack, who has a five-year-old son he loves to death, a baby daughter on the way, and a beautiful partner (Katie Aselton) he tolerates whenever the male characters’ wives show up to harsh the buzz. Jack always wanted to be a dad because he relished the thought of “raising a little man, and not a fucking pussy,” but that’s proving difficult in the face of a pussified world. Back in Jack’s day, being a man was all about swallowing your feelings and calling people gay slurs, but now he’s supposed to say things like “I appreciate you,” champion the merits of restorative justice, and readily accept the fact that Caitlyn Jenner no longer identifies as a man (which seems really hard for him even though her gender identity is probably the single least confusing thing about her life, and has no bearing whatsoever on Jack’s).
What Jack should really be mad about — but hardly protests against — is his wife’s insistence that their kid go to a super-expensive private school in a white-collar suburb where their kids could get a solid education for the cost of lunch money. But no, Jack and his two best friends agree to sell their throwback sports jerseys company so that they can afford the next phase of their lives as they work for the new owners, which finds our bro-tastic trifecta at the mercy of a millennial CEO named Aspen (an impressively nuanced and loathsome Miles Robbins, doing excellent character work) who immediately pivots the business into a more hellish and Orwellian Urban Outfitters.
Bad as that is for Jack, it might be even worse for his wingmen, who are experiencing other variations of the same crisis. Connor (the gifted Bobby Cannavale, who really likes to work) is a perpetual twentysomething whose unchanging looks belie a refusal to grow up; his entire character boils down to some one-sided fistbumps, a few cringey attempts to connect with youth culture, and a militant wife (Jackie Tohn) who believes in letting her kid run wild. Mike, on the other hand, is the most level-headed member of the group. Played by Bokeem Woodbine, whose casting reflects Burr’s efforts to make this feel like a real movie and not just a circle jerk of comedians (and whose relatively subtle performance elevates the script where it can), Mike’s kids are in college and his gorgeous 26-year-old girlfriend (Reign Edwards) doesn’t care that he got a vasectomy. One reason she doesn’t care? Mike just got her pregnant anyway. Ruh-roh! Cue: Cannavale shouting “pre-cum!” at the top of his lungs as if he were William Wallace.
So the stage is set for a wry yet begrudgingly warm tale about three men learning to make their peace with middle age and find their sea legs all over again, right? Well, yes and no. That might be the overarching agenda that holds this hot mess of a movie together, but “Old Dads” has its balls snipped by a maddening inability to pick a central plot. It shouldn’t be that hard; Burr and Tishler’s script doesn’t need enough story to fill a Russian novel, just a simple backbone sturdy enough to support the weight of Burr’s various strawmen.
So when Jack calls the principal of his son’s crunchy pre-school (Rachael Harris) a “stumpy cunt” after she chides him for being two minutes late for pick-up, it seems like the rest of the film will hinge on his efforts to win back her support in time for her to write a letter of recommendation for the kids’ next school. I mean, it leads to a scene where a white mom tearfully insists that “the c-word is the n-word for women,” which is definitely a thing that real people actually think and not just something Burr came up with so that he could go on a rant about how dumb it is. And don’t get me started on the dad who takes offense to “stumpy” because it triggers his self-esteem issues, or the guy who refuses to identify as white because his 23andMe revealed that he’s three percent Sri Lankan.
The punchline is supposedly at the expense of a society that obsesses over words and identity politics in order to excuse itself from reckoning with actions, but the actual jokes Burr uses to set it up are so hacky — so obviously invented out of thin air for a comedian to win over characters like Jack and his friends — that all of his points feel less true by virtue of his efforts to make them. It’s like if Elon Musk personally took over the Los Feliz Daycare Twitter account.
But wait! Forget all the daycare stuff, because suddenly Jack and his friends are on a work trip to the middle of nowhere in search of a guy Aspen has picked to be the new face of their (former) company. Surely the process of finding and grooming this off-the-grid fiftysomething — hand-picked for his uncoolness — will be the engine that drives the rest of the story, and not just an excruciating backdrop for some “I’m just asking questions” transphobia and a super trite bit about N.W.A. that tries to marry the “say ‘what’ again” scene from “Pulp Fiction” with that junket interview where the real Samuel L. Jackson tried to get a white journalist to say the n-word. No such luck.
By the time they magically warp back home, the friends are embroiled in the big fight that typically comes towards the end of the movie and Jack is planning a school fundraiser that seems poised to be the big third act setpiece until — in what feels like a desperate bid to inject some life into a film that’s been flatlined too long for any hope of brain activity — the whole thing is sidelined in favor of a failed trip to Vegas and a last-minute Bruce Dern cameo. I’m all for comedies mixing things up with deliberate intention, but “Old Dads” smacks of simple rookie mistakes that suck the air out of even Burr’s most road-tested bits; the plotting is so clumsy and erratic that it’s easier to stop following the story and just keep a running list of all the things that make Jack angry: Data. Vaping. Martin Scorsese. OK, I made that last one up, but it wouldn’t have been the worst thing if anything this movie actually did or said had the chutzpah to make good on its transgressive attitude.
The whole does it offend you, yeah? routine only works if someone commits to it, and Burr is too much of a softy at heart to go all the way. He doesn’t want to piss people off, he just wants to air his grievances about progressive culture; “Old Dads” is anti-woke comedy for people who want to shake their fists at clouds without signing up for Ron DeSantis’ stormtroopers. Burr doesn’t want to ban scooters, he just wants to point out how stupid people look on them and then laugh when they get horribly injured. That approach speaks to the measured tone of Burr’s direction, which effectively threads the needle between the broadness of the film’s comedy and the seriousness of its concerns, and suggests that Burr might have a real future behind the camera if he’s sincerely willing to accept that he might still have a lot to learn. Based on the pat on the back Jack gives himself at the end of “Old Dads,” I’m not holding my breath.
“Old Dads” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, October 20.