Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

November 16, 2013
Johnny Knoxville, right, and Jackson Nicoll star in "Bad Grandpa,"
Johnny Knoxville, right, and Jackson Nicoll star in "Bad Grandpa,"

“All vulgarity is crime,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “Vulgarity is the conduct of others.” One wonders what Wilde might have made of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa – a film that has confounded everyone by surging to the top of the United States box office. He may have seen it as affirmation of another witticism: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilsation in between.”

Until this point in American cinematic history, the Jackass franchise has been a highly successful cult phenomenon. It entered the world in 2000 via MTV, as a reality TV program which featured, in the words of Wikipedia, “people performing various dangerous, crude, self-injuring stunts and pranks.” Three previous Jackass films enjoyed quick returns at the box office, but Bad Grandpa looks set to be the mother lode.

The formula is simple enough, being largely a variation on the old Candid Camera routine. Set up an unusual/shocking/embarrassing situation in a public place and film the responses of unsuspecting bystanders. The scenario is scripted but the comic outcomes are randomised, being generated by people’s actions and the looks on their faces. It doesn’t always work, but shoot enough footage and you are bound to get a result.

Bad Grandpa is the first Jackass film to have anything resembling a plot, although it remains little more than a succession of scenes stuck on a storyline like lumps of meat on a skewer. The protagonist is 86-year-old Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville), old in the flesh but young at heart; whose worst impulses have been set free by the death of his wife, Ellie (Catherine Keener), after 46 years of marriage.

Irving’s daughter, Kimmie (Georgina Cates), is on the verge of being sent back to prison for drug offenses, and needs to offload her eight-year-old son, Billy (Jackson Nicoll). Irving is reluctant to accept the charge as it will cramp his style now that he is a carefree bachelor again. He decides to take Billy to stay with his estranged father, Chuck (Greg Harris), in Raleigh, North Carolina. Deadbeat Chuck is equally reluctant to take charge of Billy until he realises he can score $600 a month in child support payments.

From here the story becomes a road movie in which Irving and Billy act out a series of outrageous scenarios as they wind their way towards their destination. By the end of the film the antagonistic relationship between Irving and Billy has become a close bond, although we can only have mixed feelings about this alliance.

So much for the plot. The real thrust and attraction of this movie lies in the gags and stunts, which are jaw-droppingly crude. There are fart jokes, poo jokes, penis jokes, and every other shade of ribaldry. One could say the same about Rabelais, but latter-day middle-America doesn’t encourage too many literary allusions.

Johnny Knoxville’s foul-mouthed Grandpa is already familiar to Jackass devotees, but here he is let off the leash. Never a minute – nor a woman – goes by without Irving reflecting on his favourite subject: tail, poontang, tush, and numerous other terms I can’t remember. Everywhere he goes, Irving tries and fails to pick up girls, occasionally using Billy as his accomplice.

If there is a revelation is this film, it is Jackson Nicoll, a nine-year-old actor who plays Billy with extraordinary self-assurance. Nicoll is unphased by anything Knoxville throws at him, no matter extreme. His performance is proof that children act like adults when treated like adults. No-one watching Bad Grandpa could ever imagine this cocksure little waif needed to be molly-coddled.

This, of course, is where so much of the film’s humour resides. Like the poor dupes captured on secret camera we have conventional expectations about the way old men and little boys behave. Irving and Billy upset all those ideas and the results are funny, though only occasionally hilarous. Anyone who walks into this movie with no conception of what they are going to see, will be frankly disgusted. The salient question is: “Can we be amused and disgusted at the same time?”

Bad Grandpa may be one long gross-out, but it is also a savage parody of American morés, and the Jackass team have chosen their targets carefully. Nothing is more striking than one of the last sequences when Irving dresses Billy in drag and crashes a children’s beauty competition. Doting parents treating little girls as would-be glamour queens are more perverse than anything Jackass could dream up, although they enjoy the trimmings of respectability. In such company Irving and Billy are agents of normality.

Although it is a formula film Bad Grandpa wreaks havoc with several kinds of genre. In a road movie characters travel around having various encounters, finally arriving at a point of self-understanding. One could say this happens with Irving and Billy, but it is only to confirm them in their wicked ways. The same might be said for Bad Grandpa’s status as a ‘coming of age’ tale. Whatever maturity Billy attains is due to having to compensate for the terminally childish adults in his life. Irving is hardly more than an 86-year-old refugee from a teenage slob flick.

Bad Grandpa arrives at the end of a succession of movies that deal with the theme of old people enjoying loving, fulfilling relationships while keeping the sexual flame alive. Think of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Hope Springs, Quartet, And If We All Lived Together? …and so on. In the character of Irving we have a geriatric sex maniac ready to press his attentions on any woman who comes within reach. As a bonus he is willing to pass on this expertise to his grandson. It is the perfect, perhaps inevitable response to all those heart-warming flicks aimed at the older demographic.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
USA, rated MA 15+
92 mins
Directed by Jeff Tremaine; written by Jeff Tremaine, Fax Bahr, Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville & Adam Small; starring Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll, Greg Harris, Georgina Cates, Catherine Keener

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 16 November, 2013.

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