Johnny Knoxville and company take a cue from Sacha Baron Cohen by attempting to blend a traditional narrative with Candid Camera-style farce in Bad Grandpa, and the result is a heavily padded, conceptually strained Jackass spin-off that makes you truly appreciate the unique comic artistry at the heart of Ali G and Borat.
The story centers on mischievous octogenarian Irving Zisman (Knoxville in heavy makeup and prosthetics), who is overjoyed when his longtime wife passes away after 46 years of marriage. Eager to get out and sow his geriatric oats, Irving finds his debauched journey ending before it even begins when his crackhead daughter shows up at the funeral with his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll). It seems that Billy’s mother has gotten in trouble with the law once again, and she needs Irving to drive him across the country to be with his deadbeat dad -- who only agrees to take the boy after learning that he’ll receive $600 a month in government support. Determined not to let the little runt get in the way of his good times, Irving stuffs his wife’s corpse in the trunk of his classic Lincoln town car, plops Billy in the passenger seat, and hits the road, making occasional pit stops to engage in some bawdy hidden-camera antics along the way.
In the context of the Jackass series, the Irving interludes served the small yet crucial purpose of providing a momentary reprieve from the scatological humor so eagerly embraced by Knoxville and his fearless crew; after watching a grown man launch fireworks out of his sphincter or become a human beer bong, seeing an “old man” on his scooter careen out of control down a city street or attempt to get away with stealing served as something of a gentle palate cleanser before the next round of feces-spattered mayhem.
Although the concept of making Irving the center of the action indeed has potential (and perhaps even greater mass appeal), the three credited screenwriters on Bad Grandpa (Spike Jonze, Jeff Tremaine, and Knoxville) make a major misstep as they attempt to combine a raunchy hidden-camera stunt comedy with a poignant story about the relationship between Irving and his good-humored grandson. The problem with this approach is twofold: Not only do the outrageous stunts and character drama prove to be awkward bedfellows, but Knoxville -- a performer who’s at his comic best when getting smacked in the testicles -- doesn’t exactly have the acting chops to make us forget that it’s him buried beneath the faux liver spots and wispy hairline. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s Nicoll who fares the best in Bad Grandpa -- not only is he a competent straight man when the situation calls for it, but he also displays great comic timing while toying with his befuddled subjects. He may have a bright future in comedy.
The Jackass series worked because the primary players possessed genuine comic chemistry, and because the joke was always on them. It was OK to laugh at them, even (or especially) as they were writhing in pain, because they were always aware of the risks and brought the suffering upon themselves. Here, the focus is on getting a rise out of the man (or woman) on the street, and the performers simply haven’t adjusted their approach enough to account for the shift in perspective. There’s an ongoing gag in Bad Grandpa in which the perpetually horny Irving hits on women going about their daily business, and the majority of those women simply look annoyed. That’s likely the expression you’ll be wearing when you walk out of the theater realizing that the real butt of the joke isn’t the good-natured folks who signed release forms to appear in the film -- it’s you for expecting something a bit more from the contemporary torchbearers of physical comedy.
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