I have a confession to make: I’ve never seen a Jackass movie. I’m familiar with the brand, sure, but that’s more due to its place in the cultural lexicon than my interest in it. Ten years ago, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who was a fan of Johnny Knoxville and his merry troupe of pre-pubescent skate punks in big-boy underpants, who apparently delighted in a unique brand of masochism by engaging in increasingly dangerous stunts. Those dares, double-dares, and triple-dog-dares led to three successful Jackass movies (and an ever-expanding mountain of money for all involved) that remain unseen by me.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude when it comes to raunchy humor. I love low-brow comedy as much as the next guy. I can even appreciate the patently offensive or downright stupid, on occasion. But something about watching grown men punch one another in the balls just for fun has never appealed to me. My first question when I hear about such things is always, “Why?” Why would someone do that to themselves? What fun could there possibly be in navigating a hallway lined with Tasers, or riding a BMX bike into a solid object, or attacking, poking, whacking, and all-around abusing your netherparts and various bodily orifices while people laugh all around you? It just seems like the kind of anthropological barrel-scraping meant for the singular demographic of kids who will never, ever make it out of their parents’ basements.
So, imagine my surprise when I found myself not only laughing at, but thoroughly enjoying, Bad Grandpa, a movie with the most direct adjectival title since Billy Bob Thorton told a little kid to fuck off in Bad Santa.
Johnny Knoxville plays 86-year-old Irving Zisman (in remarkably realistic make-up by Oscar-nominated artist Steve Prouty), a man whose reaction to the news that his wife of some four decades has died would be considered the opposite of grief. The woman sitting next to him at the hospital is aghast. Unfortunately for her, she’s not an actor, but an unsuspecting on-looker caught up in Bad Grandpa’s web of mischief. Think Borat, only less sophisticated. Zisman’s drug-addled daughter drops off her 8-year-old son, Billy, at her mother’s funeral on the eve of going to prison, and demands that her father care for the boy while she’s in. Zisman begrudgingly relents, but not before doing unspeakable things to the poor deceased woman’s casket, and sending a gaggle of mourners running from the room. It soon becomes clear that the old man is a dirty lech, capable of all sorts of disgusting and inappropriate behaviors, despite his advanced age.
Bad Grandpa more or less settles into a standard road-trip movie, as Zisman attempts to deliver his grandson (played with spirt by young Jackson Nicoll) to the kid’s deadbeat dad in North Carolina. The arrangement with the father occurs via Skype in the middle of a real internet cafe, and involves a real family mediator who can’t believe that the old man would hand over the boy to a loser whose living room is littered with beer bottles and a bong. That scene is hilarious, as is the moment where Zisman gets his junk stuck in something where no junk is meant to go, and passers-by stare and take videos with their cell phones. There are sundry other set-pieces meant to stun innocent on-lookers, and most of them are funny, even if the movie starts to run repetitive in the middle before getting its second wind. Some folks are involved in the joke, it’s obvious; but most of them seem genuinely shocked, appalled, or amused, including Nicoll, who, it’s clear, wasn’t made privy to every surprise.
What sets Bad Grandpa apart from a run-of-the-mill vulgar comedy is its heart. Knoxville and co-writer Spike Jonze (yes, that Spike Jonze) have taken the time to develop an authentic relationship between Zisman and his grandson. It’s clear the two care about one another, in spite of the old man’s indiscretions, the least offensive of which requires Zisman to personally violate nearly every patron of a local African-American strip club. The big showdown between Billy’s dad and a group of bikers is funny, yes, but it’s poignant, too, in the way Zisman treats his growing bond with the boy.
In closing, let me just say that Bad Grandpa features one of the most explosively funny moments I’ve ever seen on film. I can tell you that it involves a farting contest gone horribly wrong. Considering this is a movie from the man who gave us Jackass, and whose own production company is called Dickhouse, would you expect anything less?