Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 25, 2013

Johnny Knoxville and Jackson Nicoll star in ’Bad Grandpa’
Johnny Knoxville and Jackson Nicoll star in ’Bad Grandpa’  (Source:Paramount Pictures)

I think it's safe to say that many people who enjoy the "Jackass" movies consider them a guilty pleasure, or at least an absent-minded one. I couldn't disagree more -- they're borderline brilliant. In fact, I can't even begin to imagine what those movies will look like 50 years in the future, when the stars' reputations have faded and all that remains is the footage. People will wonder, who were these crazy men, alternating between ridiculously dangerous stunts, inspired cartoon-derived sight gags, and hilariously homoerotic hijinks? What is the purpose for all this?

The non-narrative, anything-goes energy of those pictures fits the definition of Avant-garde better than it does fiction or documentary cinema. Though forged in the days before YouTube, the jackasses' skate-tape-meets-television-show-meets-found-footage aesthetic may well remain singular.

There's good news and bad news to report regarding "Bad Grandpa", the fourth film in the "Jackass" series. The bad news is that the form is gone. Johnny Knoxville (the only returning cast member) and series director Jeff Tremaine have edged the series toward the outskirts of narrative cinema -- they've waded into "Borat" territory. Knoxville's made up as a senior citizen, and as the bad grandpa of the title, he hits on women and engages in despicable behavior in front of unsuspecting citizens. Their reactions are all caught by hidden cameras, of course, but the movie follows along after each stunt as if Knoxville's "Irving Zisman" character is a real person -- he never takes off the mask, and we never see the unsuspecting prank-victims get hip to the joke. The good news is that it's all pretty funny.

The stunts are still set up ingeniously, resulting in many mouths left agape. To even spoil one of Knoxville and Tremaine's ludicrous pranks would be doing a disservice to both the movie and the viewer. Needless to say, they work: There are multiple points of this movie where I was sincerely shocked that "Mr. Zisman" wasn't beaten mercilessly by one of the individuals he was putting on. Yet, Knoxville always manages to just barely talk himself out of whatever he's gotten into -- even some minor crimes -- so that we can move on to the next gag.

Unfortunately, moving onto the next gag is the problem. The thread holding the film together is that a kid is being escorted across the country by his grandpa, and so we have to sit through semi-scripted segments between Knoxville and the 8-year-old in between each of the set pieces. They're stilted, awkwardly framed, and Knoxville can't even seem to decide whether he should keep up the character's nastiness -- sometimes he's a crotchety old man, but sometimes he's just consciously playing himself in makeup. We even have to watch him go through a barely-there character arc, as if we viewers were here for the emotional journey and not for the lunatic madness. These narrative and fictional elements don't overwhelm the film, but they anchor it down. It's still enjoyable, sure -- it's just not so revolutionary anymore.