Written by Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville, and Jeff Tremaine
Directed by Jeff Tremaine
“You can get away with a lotta stuff. You just gotta try.” That line from Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa is not only an adequate description of the movie itself, but will one day serve as a fine epitaph for its star, Johnny Knoxville. Ever since the creation of the TV series Jackass, Knoxville’s career has enjoyed the most success when he has tried to get away with things most people would never consider. So it goes with Bad Grandpa: the most daring stunts draw the biggest laughs, but the movie is not always as daring as it wishes it was.
The premise has been tried before in previous Jackass films: Knoxville, hiding behind old-man makeup, goes out into the general populace as senior citizen Irving Zisman. As Zisman, he can get away with saying and doing Johnny Knoxville-type things without being recognized as Johnny Knoxville. The movie adds a wisp of a plot: Zisman is charged with the care of his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) as he takes the boy on a cross-country trip.
Don’t put too much stock in that plot, because Knoxville and Spike Jonze (who co-wrote and co-produced) clearly don’t. In fact, they try to show how ridiculous that plot and these characters are at every turn. Many of the jokes at the beginning of the film carry the old trope of “old man stuck in a loveless marriage” to an absurd extreme, and a late scene where Billy asks plaintively, “Why doesn’t my mother like me?” ends with the film’s most disgusting joke. This is all for the good, because every halfway-sincere moment of this film goes over like a lead balloon.
The moments that do go over well are the most reckless ones: the pre-credits sequence that defies description, Billy’s infiltration of a little-miss beauty pageant, Irving’s trip to a male strip club that looks like it may lead to a real beating, and one or two others. These stunts work because they are so outrageous that the reactions of the real people in the frame can’t be faked. And they are real people; the Guardians of the Children, for example, are too sincere to be actors.
However, Bad Grandpa has far too much filler. There are innumerable scenes where Irving simply approaches a single woman, says the most lewd thing that Knoxville can think of, and receives a polite “No.” It’s only a little bit funny the first time, and it gets old in a hurry, as do the moments of Irving and Billy talking in the car. These are the moments when the movie feels least real, and when the written-ness of the whole affair shines through.
Bad Grandpa ought not be confused with Borat; there is no political or social commentary behind these antics. Even the child-beauty-pageant sequence, with a large crowd of easy targets in attendance, is not as pointed as it could be. However, it and several other scenes like it are laugh-out-loud outrageous, enough so to power an audience through the slower periods. Like all of Knoxville’s Jackass-related product, this film is a little slapdash and a little dangerous, and the latter is much more rewarding than the former.