Those who know us know our meltdowns. When Jack says that he has been terminated from his job for saying something unacceptable—privately, to his colleagues—his wife, Leah, thinks she knows. “Can I guess?” she asks, softly, aware of the things that get under Jack’s skin and bring out his most politically incorrect diatribes. Jack sighs long and hard, knowing that the list she will come up with would probably be worse than what he actually said. Worse, it would be damning to find out just how awful she believes he could be. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.”
Old Dads (Netflix) is a film directed by, and starring, the easily angered stand-up comedian Bill Burr—alongside Bobby Cannavale and Bokeem Woodbine—about three out-of-touch men, old friends waxing angry against the oversensitive snowflakes of today. This comes naturally to Burr, who routinely offends both sides of the discourse. In his 2019 Netflix special Paper Tiger, Burr mocks former US first lady Michelle Obama for writing “a book about not having a job”, and later castigates the bigots who missed the point of football player Colin Kaepernick’s protests about #BlackLivesMatter.
As a comedian, Burr isn’t anti-woke as much as he is anti-hypocrisy. Old Dads pits his character, Jack, against soft targets like a primary school principal or young people who appropriate words like appropriation. One fellow parent at his kid’s private school, for instance, doesn’t consider We Are The World as an inclusive enough song since it’s from before her time. If these characters seem like caricatures, then first of all, they are, and secondly, try reading responses to pretty much any post on Twitter—now called X. Liberals, in their current incarnation, are the stupidest, and least effective, of puritans.
Burr’s Jack is readily enraged by the stupidity of the current generation, but also, essentially, by those who aren’t like him or his friends: men in their early 50s who founded a company that sells nostalgia-themed jerseys. Development doesn’t get more arrested. Whenever the men enter their office, they take turns tapping a sign on the wall that extols the virtues of being “old school”.
At one point, they are in a car with a younger colleague, Travis, who judges the older men for casually objectifying female celebrities, and states that his generation is a lot more evolved. This is where Mike, who is black, asks young white Travis if he listens to rap. Finding out that his playlist includes the Compton-based group N.W.A., Mike asks what Travis does when the song he’s singing along to features the N-word. Cornered, Travis claims that he just doesn’t sing that part, and listens instead, but Mike refuses to believe that anybody singing along with the N.W.A, with their bars and their beats, could humanly pause their flow in order to refrain from singing a word.
It’s a devastating checkmate and the scene—already tense—goes on longer and longer. Spectacular.
Burr’s directorial debut would be impressive enough with verbal set-pieces like that, but there’s more here than meets the spittle. This isn’t just about righteous anger at Gen Z and hypocrisy, but also about the self-destructive powers of rage. In Paper Tiger and the more recent Live At Red Rocks (Netflix), Burr spoke of his problems with anger and the need to manage these, and while Old Dads is a rollicking, curse-filled excursion without any on-screen therapy sessions, the film does make a compelling case for looking in the mirror and seeking out help.
Of the three men, Cannavale has the funniest part, the vain Connor trying his best to look younger. He spouts barroom wisdom (“Don’t ever count another man’s drinks”) and, when his millennial boss calls his stories ridiculous, Connor chokes up with pride while retorting that he was ridiculous. Connor and Jack both have wives and young kids, while Woodbine’s Mike has what the other two call a unicorn: a pretty young girlfriend who doesn’t want marriage or kids. Except she gets pregnant, something that stuns Mike, who has already had a vasectomy. The other men liken his sperm to Bruce Willis in the 2000 film Unbreakable.
These men like fatherhood, you see. Jack loves playing catch with his young boy, has a pregnant wife and likens being a father to extreme popularity because kids scream your name when you walk in the door. (“You come home, you feel like you’re famous,” Jack says. “And they don’t die after 12 years,” adds Connor, “like a dog.”) Jack seems relatively reasonable till he starts yelling, and the film increasingly makes him aware that he’s just an old man rallying against change, something Burr realises he used to be.
Katie Aselton—who played Jenny in The League and therefore knows what it’s like to play the wife of an immature oaf—plays Leah, and it’s actually in her character that the film finds balance. She’s level-headed as well as unwilling to suffer fools but she loves her husband deeply. Describing her first date with Jack, she says he picked a fight with an entire row of moviegoers. “And it worked,” Leah begrudgingly admits. “He totally charmed me. I let him touch my boobs.”
When Leah asks if she needs to buy two pacifiers, one for her son and one for Jack, he laughs and backs down. He gets it. He understands his own ridiculousness but isn’t—as he would say—“man enough” to actually do something about it. Yet. Old Dads is about being able to look in the mirror, laugh at your own prejudices, and try to do a little bit better.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.