“Hi, I’m Johnny Knoxville! Welcome to Jackass!”
Immortal words by a seemingly-immortal man. Over the course of a little over a decade, Johnny Knoxville and his crew of troublemakers have hit, tripped, fallen, slammed, defecated, mutilated, puked, and otherwise shocked their way to international comedy stardom. Their utterly juvenile and entirely addictive brand of comedy has expanded from its MTV origins to encompass three feature films and DVDs of material cut from said films, as well as several spin-off television shows for some its more popular members, such as Viva la Bam, Wildboyz, and Dr. Steve-O.
Of course, as the years pass, the Jackasses get older, and their bodies less resilient (Knoxville is now 42), it’s become apparent that they ought to find a way to earn a living that’s a little easier on their bodies (and their audience’s gag reflex).
Which brings us to Jackass’ first feature film spin-off. Bad Grandpa is based on a long-running series of sketches from the Jackass brand in which Knoxville and a group of friends – including, of all people, Spike Jonze (yes, that Spike Jonze) – dress up in startlingly realistic old people make-up and wreak havoc on the general populace. Their pranks ranged from pretending the brakes on their electric wheelchair are broken on the hills of San Franciso to asking bystanders to take pictures of them with their ‘granddaughter’ and then proceeding to make out with her. For this film though, Knoxville is the lone Jackass (Interestingly, the film’s credits show footage of Jonze in his infamous old woman make-up, replete with drooping, lactating breasts.)
For Bad Grandpa, Knoxville reprises his role as 86-year-old Irving Zisman. At the film’s start, Zisman, sitting in a hospital waiting room, is informed of his wife’s passing. Irving immediately laughs with delight and proceeds to nearest strip club, a journey which somehow ends with him getting his penis stuck in a vending machine. We then conveniently transition to his wife’s funeral, where his long-estranged daughter unceremoniously informs him that she is going back to jail and that he will have to take his grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), to stay with his father. Irving, longing to sow some stale oats (to call them wild might be a stretch at this point), is frustrated at having to tow this ‘cockblock’ around, but relents. And of course, they don’t like each other, then like each other, then discover just how strong the bond of a family can be, and of course I won’t leave you with your abusive, neglectful father, Billy! I love you! In fairness, Knoxville commits to the few dramatic scenes as completely as he does to the comedy, and he’s not bad, at one point actually eliciting believable tears. But c’mon, is this really what you paid money to see?
(I think not.)
When the story’s not busy being schmaltzy, it serves a function very similar to that of Borat: as a framework for Knoxville and Nicoll, in character, to create a series of awkward scenarios with real-life people. Are any of these scenarios actually funny? Yeah, for the most part. The ‘Cherry Pie’ sequence, which is the film’s climax and featured in all of its advertising (and this review!) is, unsurprisingly, the film’s crowning jewel. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid it: 1.) have you been living under a rock? and 2.) you’re in for a treat. If you have, it somehow still manages to be as funny as the first time you saw the trailer, building to its denouement with deliberate, excruciatingly delightful purpose. Other stand out sequences include Knoxville’s attempts to sell his wife’s faulty electric mattress, drunkenly attempting to seduce a drive-thru waitress from a shopping cart, and visiting a strip club on Ladies’ Night.
The real surprise of the movie, however, is Jackson Nicoll, the young actor who plays the grandson. What is on display here is a young man with an incredible comic gift. Instead of taking the purely foulmouthed route that many a young actor would be made to do in an ‘adult’ comedy, Nicoll uses his natural sweetness and innocence to enhance the jokes and make those he’s pranking that much more uncomfortable. The scenes where he’s best allowed to showcase his talents are those he’s allowed to carry, such as when he walks up to strangers and asks if he can be adopted on the spot. His timing never falters, he never breaks character, and he easily holds his own against Knoxville, making the veteran comedian break out into genuine laughter in several scenes. He has that rarest of gifts in a comic actor – or indeed any actor: the ability to never overwhelm a scene but always steal it. In fact, if the fame doesn’t go too much his head and he’s not hooked on drugs and he’s not abused and he doesn’t go completely off the rails like almost every child star does, he might have a real chance at being a comedy superstar.
(I’d say his chances of making it unscathed are pretty slim, though.)
Is the film as funny as the rest of the Jackass canon? Not quite. While I hesitate to call the film’s framing device ‘bad’, it is familiar, and therefore kinda boring to watch. But it also means that the filmmakers are more limited in their options when it comes to comic scenarios. And though they execute them with gusto… I dunno. It just doesn’t quite match the manic energy of the other Jackass films. Even with a complete lack of structure and more than a few bits that don’t really work (and others that are just nauseating), there is true joy in their unrelenting speed; just one thing after another after another after another. Call it juvenile, but there is something primal, dare I say beautiful about grown men who are willing to shoot firecrackers out of their asses for a laugh.
(It’s practically a thing of beauty.)
Recommended, but judging by numbers you probably already saw it.