The disgust with which so many viewers and critics view the Jackass franchise has long been a personal mystery. Perhaps being part of the target teen audience when Johnny Knoxville and his skateboard friends’ show debuted on MTV indoctrinated me early on, but their pranks and dangerous physical stunts have delighted me from the start. These hidden camera antics roll on in Bad Grandpa, a feature vehicle for Knoxville’s 86-year-old character Irving Zisman. A poor idea for anyone without a stomach for crude, rude, and lewd behavior, the hijinks inspire plenty of laughs and wide-eyed amazement, much to one’s inner juvenile’s elation.
The first Jackass movie with a plot (though still not much of one), Jeff Tremaine’s film pairs Zisman with his elementary-schooler grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) on a Nebraska-to-North Carolina trip, the goal being for the young’n to live with his dead-beat dad Chuck (veteran stuntman Greg Harris) in Raleigh. At each stop along the drive there, oblivious bystanders stumble upon their mischief, shocked by the octogenarian’s disregard for the social contract and his apparent cluelessness in having a child bear witness. The actions and the offensive things Zisman says are part of the fun, but the observers’ reactions round out the gags. After several such exchanges, the anticipation of how those not in on the jokes will respond becomes increasingly key to the humor’s power and inspires a strong, consistent arc of comedic mayhem.
By no means attempting Borat-like social statements (thank goodness), the intergenerational road trip story allows Bad Grandpa to be more than simply a collection of skits. Presented with no sense of order, embarrassing antics with Zisman’s recently deceased wife’s corpse (played with professional stiffness by a Catherine Keener dummy and at times by the real thing) and Billy’s attempts at hooking a new father would still work, but having them focused toward a more meaningful concept doesn’t hurt. The structure likewise posits the film’s fun with prosthetics, be it Little Irving getting caught in a soda machine or his testicles (to whom nearly 90 years of gravity has not been kind) freeing themselves from his tighty-whities, as part of his overall personality. That still means Zisman is a Knoxville’d version of a dirty old man, but the approach distances the film from merely a longer, pricier episode of the defunct TV show, something the three Jackass films didn’t attempt.
Cohesive story or not, the misbehavior is simply a means of keeping audiences howling. To those ends, Knoxville, Nicoll, and their victims are wholly successful and appear primed for more of the same. Fine by me.
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use.
Bad Grandpa is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.