Film Review – Bad Grandpa
You’ve got to hand it to Johnny Knoxville. Here is a guy (along with his friends) who carved out a career by doing something that apparently looks simple. The approach to the Jackass show and films was straightforward: watching these guys performing tricks and pranks (often of the obscene kind) and catching the reactions of unknowing bystanders on camera. I’ll admit to you, some of the things they did were pretty funny, even if not especially clever. Some people thought they were entertaining; others thought they were a waste of time. But they never pretended to be anything more than what they were: a bunch of goofballs trying to come up with the most absurd hijinks they could think of, and seeing if they could pull it off. You knew exactly what you were getting when you watched their show or saw their films.
So now we get Bad Grandpa, which contains all the lack of decency we’ve seen from Knoxville and his people before. If you liked Jackass, then chances are you’ll find some enjoyment here as well. Surprisingly, the film has a bit more ambition than expected. Directed by Jeff Tremaine, who also cowrote the screenplay with Knoxville and Spike Jonze (yes, that Spike Jonze), we’re no longer given unrelated skits like in years past—there’s actually a plot here. The approach resembles what Sacha Baron Cohen did in Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), in which pranks and stunts are cobbled together with a loose story. There are real people on screen who have real reactions, but everything is framed together within an actual narrative.
How polished is that narrative? Well, not that much. Now that the filmmakers are attempting to present a story, they have the challenge of making it just as engaging as all the tomfoolery. In this category they stumble. Knoxville stars as Irving Zisman, an 80-year-old, newly widowed man. Instead of mourning the death of his late wife, Zisman considers her passing an opportunity to get into all the trouble he missed out on in life. But before he can even act, his daughter saddles him with his grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll). Not to be disheartened, Irving decides to take Billy on a cross-country trip to meet the boy’s estranged father, and to leave Billy with him. Of course, during the journey Irving and Billy encounter many sections of middle-class American citizens, and, needless to say, they do more than just ruffle a few feathers.
Credit must be given for the attempt to provide a plot, but because of it, the structure becomes uneven. We know when we’re watching a scripted scene and when we’re watching an improvised one with actual people, and the transitions between the two are jarring. The growing relationship between Irving and Billy has promise, but before it really has a chance to expand, we take a left turn where the two act out in some outrageous set-up. On the flip side, for those who come in only wanting to see the mischief, their patience may grow thin as they have to slog through scenes of character development.
Johnny Knoxville has no ceiling to the things he’s willing to do to get a reaction. Say what you will about his acting ability, but the guy has no fear when putting himself in awkward, embarrassing, and possibly dangerous situations. He’ll press buttons right up to the breaking point, and even then will step a little further just to see what will happen. Dressed in elderly makeup, Knoxville finds his character in the oddest places, including a male strip club, placing dead bodies in car trunks, and hitting on women while playing Bingo.
Knoxville has good rapport with little Jackson Nicoll. Speaking of which, I wonder what kind of child labor laws were bent (or even broken) with his performance. Nicoll—who capitalizes on the “cute kid” façade—is just as inappropriate as Knoxville is, and does things that are most likely illegal. Some of the witnesses’ responses are completely understandable when seeing a kid do stuff most adults wouldn’t even attempt.
Is Bad Grandpa funny? At times. But what stands out are the missed opportunities. Knoxville and the rest of the Jackass crew are well rehearsed with this type of material. While it’s encouraging that they tried something different with applying a story, they didn’t push the envelope far enough. What they do is a perfect way to satirize society in a larger picture. Unfortunately, it doesn’t build on that potential. Instead, the awkward situations are only used as a punch line to get a laugh. That’s all fine and dandy, but because we’ve seen all this before, there’s a strange sense of the familiar. Despite the crudeness, the film feels oddly tame and safe. You can laugh at poop and fart jokes for only so long; sooner or later, all the pooping and farting will start to stink.