Bad Grandpa: The Jackass Boys Embrace Narrative Complexity and Human Emotion. Sorta.

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Oct. 25 2013 8:08 AM

Bad Grandpa

The Jackass boys embrace narrative complexity and genuine human emotion. Well, kinda.

Johnny Knoxville and Jackson Nicoll in Bad Grandpa.
Johnny Knoxville and Jackson Nicoll star in Bad Grandpa.

Photo by Sean Cliver/Paramount Pictures Corporation

It’s the rare movie whose credit-sequence outtakes are more satisfying than the movie itself. But that’s the case with Bad Grandpa, the fourth film from Jackass jokesters Jeff Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, and Spike Jonze. As the credits roll, we get to see some of the complicated mechanics behind this reality/fiction hybrid: camera operators hidden inside Dumpsters, makeup artists turning Knoxville into his 86-year-old character Irving Zisman, and unsuspecting dupes being informed that the bizarre scene they just witnessed was in fact part of a movie. It’s totally engaging, and makes me want to buy the Bad Grandpa DVD when it comes out, provided it comes with an hourlong making-of doc.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

The movie itself is not unsatisfying, though it’s less fun than previous Jackass films, and has a worse title. Bad Grandpa is certainly a fascinating experiment; this time, rather than a plotless assemblage of outrageous stunts and bizarre pranks, Tremaine and co. tell a story featuring “characters” and “scenes” and even a bit of “dialogue.” The point of the movie remains the pranks and stunts, but holding them all together, just barely, is a half-assed narrative about a grandpa delivering his grandson from his mother in Lincoln, Neb., to his father in Raleigh, N.C. The movie’s biggest shock isn’t Johnny Knoxville getting his penis stuck in things. (Though he does, never fear.) It’s that this half-assed narrative embraces heartfelt emotion in its final act—and to some degree succeeds.

But first, the tomfoolery. This movie is light on the stunts that made previous Jackass movies so disgustingly watchable—no one, for example, plays pantsless tetherball with a beehive. Instead, most of the scenes involve public pranks: Irving or his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) doing something mortifying in a funeral home or bingo parlor, while innocent spectators/victims try to cope. At one point, Grandpa tries to ship Billy across the country in a big cardboard box, and the poor shipping-services employees must figure out what to do with this old man handing them a carton that keeps saying, “Grandpa, I’m hungry.”

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What impressed me again and again is how unflappably polite Americans can be. It really takes a lot to get someone mad at you in America: Over and over again, Irving says and does horrible things, and the kind people of Knoxville or Charlotte or Raleigh just chuckle uncomfortably at him. (In this respect the old-man costume does help; more than one prank victim clearly believes Irving must simply be senile, and a lot of his targets seem less threatened by an elderly gentleman making obscene gestures in their direction than they would by, say, an appropriately aged Johnny Knoxville.)

The result, though, is that a surprising number of scenes fall flat. It’s funny-ish to watch a drunken Irving, pushed in a shopping cart by Billy, order “poontang” at the drive-thru window of Chapel Hill restaurant treasure Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen; it’s less funny to watch the manager steer him into the parking lot, kindly ask if he’s OK, and then pass along his request to the drive-thru clerk—who wisely answers that she’s not interested, because “he’s 80 years old, in a shopping cart.”

The scenes that work best—that had me and everyone in the audience shrieking with laughter while also averting our eyes—are the ones in which Knoxville, as Irving, pushes things further and further until he finally encounters some resistance. I’m thinking here of a particular tour de force at ladies’ night in a St. Louis lounge, which has hired male strippers for the evening. The scene continues past the point of discomfort into pure comedic agony as everyone in the club becomes more and more enraged by Irving’s behavior. Like many scenes in the movie, the sequence stops only at what I assume is the exact moment when the crew must have dashed through the doors, making it rain fifties and legal releases on everyone in the club.

Needless to say, Billy and Grandpa bond over the course of the trip, and Grandpa begins questioning the wisdom of delivering Billy to his burnout father. That’s when the decency of everyday Americans pays off for the movie in a jaw-dropping sequence involving the bikers in the Gastonia, N.C., chapter of Guardians of the Children. That’s all I’ll say, lest I spoil it for you, but I do not exaggerate when I say that I teared up a little bit during this scene. Not because I was really worried about fictional-kid-in-the-real-world Billy, but because when real people see real trouble—not the baloney make-believe of Johnny Knoxville pretending to poop on a wall, but deep trouble of the sort that makes your heart hurt—they still sometimes step up to the plate. I didn’t expect to get that message from Bad Grandpa. I don’t even think the goofball filmmakers of Bad Grandpa expected to deliver it. But it was beautiful nonetheless.

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