It’s hard to believe that Jackass is still a thing. Originally premiering on MTV way back in 2000, the comedy/stunt show (I guess?) created by Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze and Jeff Tremaine spawned its own bizarre form of entertainment that’s transmogrified into three – now four – theatrical releases, similar shows like Wildboyz and Nitro Circus, which itself earned its own theatrical feature, and Steve-O’s tragicomic career. With Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, director Tremaine and Knoxville don’t do much to repackage the kinds of shenanigans Jackass is known for. Instead of inflicting (too much) damage on themselves, they choose merely to barely string together pranks on innocent bystanders with the loosest of narratives.
Ostensibly, the story concerns the recently widowed Irving Zisman (Knoxville, in surprisingly thorough age makeup) and his grandson Billy (the chubbily charming Jackson Nicoll). Irving learns his ne’er-do-well daughter is going to jail, and is asked to take Billy on a cross-country trip to his loser father. Every step of the way is peppered with scatological gags testing the limits’ of everyday people’s good will, and their bullshit detectors.
Knoxville’s sheer audacity – mixing it up with bikers, protective Southern folk and ladies’ night male dancers – is to be admired. The guy, for whatever reason, is fearlessly able to perform an entirely different kind of improvisational comedy. Nicoll is talented insofar he knows the inherent humor of little boys saying ridiculous things, even if he doesn’t understand them. Any time it seems Bad Grandpa might be mercilessly exploiting him, he comes up with a gag Knoxville obviously wasn’t prepared for. Kids, as the idiom goes, say the darndest things.
Bad Grandpa manages the not inconsequential trick of inhabiting a strange world where reality and fiction co-exist. The audience is all too aware these are “friendly” pranks, but the “supporting cast” of bystanders didn’t until, of course, they signed the releases to appear in the film. Just seeing their face clues the audience in that they were, eventually, in on the joke, but weren’t at the time their base emotional responses were laid bare. It’s surreal to see on the big screen.
Unfortunately, the gags get stale. They’re entirely too similar in structure, and never really build much momentum. There’s a simple set-up, some fooling about meant to build tension, and then a punch line meant to be “shocking”. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The worst gags, simply, aren’t earned. Who isn’t going to laugh at poorly timed bodily functions? Who isn’t going to laugh at broad physical slapstick? But the best are genuinely surprising, usually the result of the people around the irascible Irving not quite behaving in the way they were expected to. Like Knoxville’s boldness, the logistics of setting up each gag – and getting real people to react sincerely – are nightmarish to consider.
- Johnny Knoxville demands respect with his fearlessness
- A surprising amount of heart
- The thinnest amount of plot strings gags together
- Gags get repetitive and stale
Some genuine character moments keep the story going, building to a dynamic, “dramatic” conclusion. Of course it’s juvenile. Of course it’s (a little) racist. Of course it’s (a little) misogynistic. But there’s absolutely no malice here. Anyone looking for deeper meaning could argue that Bad Grandpa attempts to make some kind of existential comment that everything is a joke; that everything is fake. From the people you meet on the street to the situations and motivations everyone deals with on a day-to-day basis is some kind of cosmic prank. But it doesn’t. There’s certainly no artistic statement to be made here, but that doesn’t make Bad Grandpa any less valid, or entertaining.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, a Dickhouse Production, MTV Films production distributed by Paramount Pictures, is 92 minutes long and rated R.