Stand-up comedians have a long history of becoming screen auteurs, setting aside the problematic aspects of talents like Woody Allen and Louis C.K. after their celebrated heydays. Yet as hot as he is on stage, Bill Burr picked a lousy time to try migrating his angry-guy act to movies, as he does in the fitfully funny “Old Dads,” which is premiering on Netflix.
Acting as director, star and co-writer with fellow older dad Ben Tishler, Burr seeks to capture the absurdities of modern-day parenting. As Jack, he plays a guy who can barely conceal his hostility toward wheat-germ-eating private-school communities and kids “dressed like f—in’ news anchors.”
The movie functions as an extension of Burr’s act, which includes taking detours to conspicuously riff on things, while setting up most of the supporting players as cardboard caricatures for Burr’s character, Jack Kelly, to rail at and knock over.
That approach hardly represents a new one, for anyone who remembers Allen magically producing media theorist Marshall McLuhan in “Annie Hall” to tell a pompous academic just how wrong he was. The world, however, has changed an awful lot since then, and Burr’s arbitrary asides to joke about Caitlin Jenner or easily triggered millennials can’t help feeling gratuitous, even if he’s simultaneously spoofing himself as an out-of-touch dinosaur in the process.
At 51, Jack is about to have a second child with his wife (Katie Aselton), and both he and his friend Connor (Bobby Cannavale) have five-year-old boys. The latter’s kid is an uncontrollable little monster, which doesn’t prevent his mother from defending him by saying things like, “What you’re feeling now is what you’re feeling. Let it out.”
Jack, Connor and their third pal and business partner Mike (Bokeem Woodbine) have sold their sports-jersey company to new management, which leaves them chafing under a 20-something boss who doesn’t fire employees but rather speaks of “liberating” them. Jack also has a run-in with his kid’s principal (Rachael Harris), forcing him to bite his lip if they want the needed recommendation to get their tyke into the next-tier private school.
“Old Dads” concocts some amusing moments, perhaps especially for those familiar with certain quadrants of Los Angeles (OK, more like the outlying Valley and surrounding areas, but close enough).
The tension comes from the fact stand-ups in general, and Burr and contemporaries like Dave Chappelle in particular, reserve (indeed, revel in) the right to be offensive, making clear their material needn’t appeal to everyone.
In 2020, Burr caused a stir with jokes about “woke” White women on “Saturday Night Live,” and he goes there again in the movie, mocking a White mom at the school who compares a slur directed at women to the N-word.
Burr’s business partner, Mike Bertolina, told the Hollywood Reporter the movie repackaged Burr’s stand-up “in a narrative format,” which is transparently the case. The inherent challenge is that in movie form Burr, or his alter ego, directs those rants at somebody, which inevitably alters the dynamic.
Burr’s fans will doubtless find plenty to like in “Old Dads,” even if the movie sandpapers down his rough edges and causes him to question his cave-man mentality.
From a broader perspective, though, it simply feels like a thornier proposition now than it once was to shoehorn a stand-up act into a film – the basic template for Old Dads” that, despite or maybe because of the comics that preceded him, hasn’t aged particularly well.
“Old Dads” premieres October 20 on Netflix. It’s rated R.