Directed by Jeff Tremaine
Starring Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll, Greg Harris, Georgina Cates, Kamber Hejlik, and Spike Jonze.
Oh Jackass, your combination of filthy jokes, raunchy slapstick, and hidden-camera non-sequiturs are as amusing as they are tasteless. This mixture is the defining factor and key draw for Jackass fans since the days of the TV show that gave the franchise it’s start. Bad Grandpa has this sophomoric concoction in spades, and for those who are willing to suspend their seriousness and not scrutinize the themes to closely, it’s great entertainment. Unlike previous Jackass incarnations though, Bad Grandpa is not a jumbled collection of skits: it has a plot line and defined characters, and dare I say, more depth than any of its predecessors.
The characters of Bad Grandpa aren’t (completely) unique. Johnny Knoxville reprises his persona as Irving Zissman, foul-tempered and lecherous grandfather who’s penchant for horrible pickup lines, over-the-top geriatric foibles, and deviant public sexuality has proved over and over again to be genuinely disturbing to average bystanders and hilarious to the franchise’s fans. Across from him is Jackson Nicoll who plays Billy, an impressionable youth with tragic prospects and an unchecked mouth, an enfant terrible whose one-liners and crude banter come off as innocent and misguided to anyone not in the joke. With the exception of scattered actors and jackass co-conspirators who help the pair set up their jokes, the true stars are the odd-couple and the confused, sometimes-disgruntled, and always unsuspecting public who get to watch them up close.
The story, although modeled after the sincere and heartbreaking comedy Paper Moon in ’73, starts at first as a vehicle for Zissman and Billy’s raucous stunts and gags. Zissman’s wife Gloria, a frequently raunchy co-conspirator in the other Jackass films played by Spike Jonze, has just died, leaving Zissman finally free to spread his aging oats. Simultaneously Zissman’s daughter, who it is established by Billy in the opening scenes is going to jail for being a crack addict, drops Billy on Zissman in the middle of Gloria’s funeral with instructions to take the boy to his irresponsible father to be taken care of. Although Zissman initially resists, the two eventually form a bond through constant public japery at bystander’s expense and frequent back-and-forths revolving around their unlikely comradely.
What distinguishes this from other Jackass films is it’s very conceit of being plot driven. Typically, the lewd pranks Zissman pulls give fans comfortable distance because of their temporary nature: Knoxville does the Zissman bit, the Jackass boys get a good laugh in, and then they cut to a totally unrelated skit. In Bad Grandpa, Knoxville has committed to his role. Zissman, although crude and obtuse, is a character, has a personality, a history, and a future in this film. For all of his vulgarity, he has moments that seem altogether sincere and as his journey with his grandson Billy progresses, you can feel a real connection. It sheaths the normally unconnected jokes in the duo’s inner life and provides a level of depth that, although not enough to constitute character growth or definition, is not nearly as shallow as other Jackass conceits.
The hidden camera jokes in this framework are both the reasons that the film was made and the situational action that moves the internal relationship between Billy and Zissman forward. As such, the real people and their reactions have real impact on the arcs of the scripted characters. These bystanders, comedic “marks”, typically fall into categories: the gullible mark, the disgruntled mark, the apathetic, and the laughing co-conspirator who, although not completely aware of what’s going on, is still in on the joke. They instigate, they get angry, they play along, and their jaws drop in disbelief, and in many ways they steal the gag. The line between pranker and comic victim becomes blurry in several scenes, and these add a level of enjoyment that suggests the incredible work involved in producing these scenes.
All of this – the responsive characters, chemistry, and the wonderful cross-section of American life that Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine and co. were able to film – make for nimble comedy. They have not lost any of their spirit or their awful taste, but the movie feels more mature somehow than the wolf pack that Jackass typically focuses on. The gleeful defiance against the mundane day-to-day that their pranks rely upon feels more refined and the moments of bonding and feeling between Zissman and Billy feel very honest and genuine. From golf courses to junior beauty pageants, the two fail social convention and blunder through any event they find themselves in. Yet, the self-deprecating drama Knoxville and Nicoll embark on seems earnest and heartfelt, and that makes the regular Jackass tropes shine brighter in Bad Grandpa.
Jackass has never pretended seriousness. They consistently play the buffoon and perform painful and self-deprecating stunts to shock bystanders and get belly laughs from audiences. Bad Grandpa is an evolution on the Jackass formula that is quite welcome – almost needed. Knoxville and Nicoll play their roles wonderfully and the gags, the writing, and the concepts didn’t miss a beat. It’s flinch-worthy in plenty of ways, and it has some jokes that don’t fall as well as others. The majority of the jokes are polished and without imperfection, and it feels like Knoxville is coming into a second wind. What it offers is generously entertaining and an hour well spent, and despite it flaws, it is a fun with something really worthwhile to give.