Silver Screen: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa *1/2
If you see Twelve Years a Slave, you’re going to need to wind down.
Certainly you can’t get much further away on the spectrum of film than Bad Grandpa, which is barely even a movie. The latest prank-centric film starring Johnny Knoxville, which bears the prefix Jackass Presents, is not a supersized helping of MTV’s gleefully stupid Candid Camera for millennials, but rather an actual narrative, albeit a spare one.
Dressed in a thrift-store sweater and the old-man makeup he would occasionally incorporate into the earlier Jackass oeuvre, masochistic wolfpack ringleader Johnny Knoxville plays his Irving Zisman character. The totality of the Irving Zisman character heretofore was pretty much the makeup and the name Irving Zisman, but here he gets a backstory. His estranged daughter is going back to jail on yet another drug charge, and she has no way to get her son Billy (Jackson Nicoll) to his deadbeat dad (Greg Harris), who is to assume custody. The recently widowed Zisman was looking forward to using his newly single status to pick up women, but reluctantly agrees to take time off from lechery— sort of— to drive the kid across the country.
Bad Grandpa is fashioned as a Borat-style comedy with a handful of interstitial staged sequences to provide the connective tissue between a series of unscripted pranks. Trouble is, the movie seriously drags during those brief scripted sequences, which are unimaginative and perfunctory. Nothing of significance comes of the story, and the team of filmmakers (director Jeff Tremaine and a cadre of writers, including Knoxville and Spike Jonze) seems utterly disinterested in it. It’s not as though the audience was clamoring for the Jackass movies to be cohesive, so it’s not entirely clear for whose benefit the narrative exists.
But the real problem with Bad Grandpa is that the pranks, the actual reason to pay for a ticket, fall flat more often than not. Jackass moves quickly, and whatever its other shortcomings, packs a lot of silliness into a short window of time. In that sense, it was always the antireality show: no setup, all payoff. Even the stodgiest grump couldn’t stifle a laugh for too long, and the crew’s hit-to-miss ratio was pretty high. Here the gags are decent but uninspired, and, worst, targeted at the wrong people.
Part of what made Jackass fun was these guys were mostly tormenting each other, with innocent bystanders mostly transformed into an unwitting audience. Borat, on the other hand, did a lot of collateral damage to whoever came too near the Kazakhstani journalist, but those targets were well-chosen. Borat mostly only ruined the day for bloviating politicians and clueless racists, and similarly the Bruno movie made homophobes and egocentric fashionistas the butt of the joke. So many of these Bad Grandpa pranks, however, cruelly target people who are only trying to help. Sometimes the outrageousness trumps the awkwardness, but it’s tough to laugh at a volunteer choir who came, presumably out of kindness, to a stranger’s funeral only to be horrified by a nihilistic theater of the absurd.
Bad Grandpa milks a few cheap laughs out of the shy, charming kid costar Nicoll, especially scenes of him interacting with unsuspecting adults while the filmmakers clearly feed him lines through an earpiece. And its best moments are the little unscripted interactions between Nicoll and Knoxville, whose warm, easy charm comes through most clearly in his eagerness to amuse Nicoll and his genuine amusement at the kid’s jokes. Knoxville’s good humor always leavened the sadism of the Jackass pranks, but here the schtick curdles into something a little meaner and, worse, more pedestrian.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.