I’m in favor of Jackass exploring new offshoots of their format, and spinoffs expanding on their most effective segments. It’s a way to keep the medium fresh and expand the franchise, but most importantly it’s a way to prove that this is art. They’re not just screwing around out there, at least not without true inspiration. Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine and the whole gang have found a way to elevate pranks and stunts into a creative space with structure and movements, whether they’ve thought about it as such or not. Bad Grandpa proves that this aesthetic can work in a focused mission statement as well as it does in a freeform, more random Jackass structure. If you hated Jackass you’ll still hate Bad Grandpa. Something tells me they’d be proud of that.
Irving Zisman is Johnny Knoxville in old age makeup. Remember in Jackass Number Two when he gave his “grandson” alcohol and cigarettes to see how bystanders would react to him? Well, this is a whole movie of that character, sort of strung together in the narrative of a grandfather/grandson road trip, but populated with public stunts along the way. Jackson Niccoll is the eight-year-old Billy who provokes as much outrage as Knoxville himself does.
When Billy’s mother goes back to jail for drugs, Irving has to take him to live with his father who, in a stunt played on a real counselor, is quite obviously only taking him for the $600/month stipend. Actually, Irving’s “daughter” confronts him at the funeral for his “wife” where they play a prank on unsuspecting parishioners who were kind enough to fill in the service. It’s probably more of a comment on how much Jackass I’ve watched or just how I read films at this point that I saw this one coming, but it’s always the genuine reactions that sell the comedy.
On the road, Knoxville and crew are able to stage some of their most shocking and innovative pranks. I must be totally desensitized to dead bodies and penis jokes at this point, but a simple gag with an airbag totally surprised me. I won’t even hint at a spoiler for the one that was truly shocking. Even when you know they’ve rigged something to be a stunt, Knoxville’s performance and Tremaine’s editing is so effective in building up the suspense that the structure works.
Because they’re never breaking character throughout Bad Grandpa, you lose a little bit of the escalation of a prank, and certainly the moment of release when they reveal to the victims what’s really going on. We may be getting the highlights of the funniest reactions, but they’re cutting back to the narrative before the individual prank fully escalates. They can’t reveal it’s Johnny Knoxville because the movie’s still going. That’s one disadvantage of turning Jackass into a narrative format, but what you gain is a hyperfocused set piece that only includes the good parts. Stay for the credits though, and they do give you that release.
Another advantage to this experiment is that they actually use unwitting participants as turning points in the narrative. They put on a scene in front of a biker gang and end up using the bikers as props, because the bikers are just inclined to protect this child they see as in danger from two grown-up A-holes. Then the film subverts that plot structure again. When they prank a toddler beauty pageant, those are just people who deserve to be pranked anyway.
As you may imagine, the story of Irving and Billy is pretty slight. In between stunts they do some improv (I assume, but maybe it’s scripted) to connect the pieces together. They spoof the coming of age/bonding with one’s elders tropes, but it’s light. Mainly they just feed Niccoll lines that are tame enough to hold someone’s attention, but offensive enough to engage them.
Bad Grandpa may not be quite as strong as the perfection that was Jackass Number Two or the outrageousness of Jackass 3D but it is an evolution far beyond the first movie or TV series. I still want to see Jackass 4-ever and the inevitable Jackass 4.5 sequel, but I encourage them to try these experiments in between. Give us Party Boy: The Movie and The Passion of the Wee Man.