At first it’s difficult to put a finger on. What is it about Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa that makes it work as well as it does? It’s all just a lot of juvenile humour—dick jokes abound!—but it somehow manages to induce smiles and laughter instead of eye-rolls at the cheap jokes and gags at its heart. When Johnny Knoxville, dressed as the titular Bad Grandpa Irving Zisman, runs around, making unsuspecting people uncomfortable with his gross antics, it somehow just works. The reason is quite simple: it’s all so good-natured.
Where previous entries in the Jackass franchise, beginning with the original TV show, have essentially been a series of wild, dangerous and often gross stunts strung together with nothing more than a title for each segment, Bad Grandpa takes an entirely different route. Being that Irving is himself just a character played by Knoxville, and probably owing more than a little to Knoxville’s age and inability to pull quite the level of stunt work he has in the past, the focus is more on simple pranks. Aside from a few stunts, like Knoxville flying through a thrift shop window, or being practically folded in half over and over by a malfunctioning bed, the humour here tends to come from Irving simply and humorously behaving in gross and inappropriate ways.
To make all these gags work, the Jackass team, including co-writer/co-producer Spike Jonze, concocts an overarching story. Irving is left with his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll), whose mother is going to prison for a stretch on drug charges, and needs to be dropped off at with his deadbeat father in North Carolina. The result is your basic road trip scenario, with Grandpa and Billy travelling through the Southern United States. Grandpa keeps trying to grossly hit on women and feels like Billy is getting in the way. As with any such plot, they come to value each other, yadda yadda yadda…
The plot is little more than an excuse to string a series of gags together. The segments where the characters are acting out the plot are the least compelling, but they’re kept quite short, and often end with a solid punchline. The quality of the gags depends on your reaction to very silly, very crude, very juvenile humour, but if you like the occasional poop joke, you’re probably going to laugh at least a little. Many of the gags are based around Irving’s extremely chauvinistic streak, and while there’s some amusement to be found in this early on, the film relies on it to a point where it becomes a bit too uncomfortable for the audience.
But what makes it all gel is the good-natured feeling it oddly inspires. There’s nothing mean-spirited about Bad Grandpa. Unlike Borat and Bruno, which this film definitely resembles, Bad Grandpa doesn’t aim to make the victims of its pranks into goofs. There’s no big attempt to be satirical and make people look like jerks. It’s much more in the vein of Candid Camera, where the fun is simply in seeing crazy stuff happen and watch as regular people on the street react. The best part is that so many people react with laughter and joy at the ridiculousness. In one sequence, where Irving decides to participate in a male strip show, he actually gets two women to egg him on, and their delighted reactions at the havoc he wreaks is what sells the gag. It’s all for fun, and it’s borne out by the end credits montage in which we see Knoxville and company reveal to people that they’re being filmed for a movie, with most of them loving the idea. In the film’s best sequence, Billy enters a beauty pageant as dressed as a little girl. He proceeds to do a hilariously staged strip show, with the audience completely in shock. It’s the one scene where a degree of satire enters the equation, but even then it’s minor and serves merely to enhance the absurdity of what’s on screen.
The people involved look like they’re just having a ball. Really, that’s what made Jackass such a mainstay in the first place. It’s just a bunch of crazy guys having fun doing crazy things, with us, the audience, getting to watch it all and enjoy. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is hardly a work of comedic art, but as a generally joyful, crude little romp, it definitely delivers its share of smiles and laughs.
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