When it comes to Jackass movies, typical film criticism criteria basically needs to be chucked out the window. The usual discussion of emotional through lines, successfully told stories, awe-inspiring cinematography or devastating performances are cast aside when you are watching Johnny Knoxville and company pulling a barrage of insane stunts and perilous pranks. In Jackass movies 1-3, all that really mattered was whether or not its contents were shocking, thrilling and/or funny. But with Bad Grandpa the Dickhouse team attempts something more ambitious by nesting their stunts, pranks and rude shtick into a story about the titular granddad and his estranged grandson Billy. Unfortunately, this time the jackasses' aim exceeds their reach.
Knoxville stars as Irving Zisman, his old man character fans will recognize from previous Jackass pranks. Irving has just lost his wife of forty-some years, and his immediate response--much to the surprise of the other people in the hospital waiting room--is that of delight as he turns his head downward and tell his penis, who he calls "Leroy," they are free at last! But Irving's plans to tear it up with whatever young woman might be willing are thwarted when his crack-addicted daughter drops her chubby son Billy (Jackson Nicoll) off with him before she heads to prison. She tasks Irving with driving Billy from Lincoln, Nebraska, to his thieving and foul-mouthed father in Raleigh, North Carolina. While on this reluctant road trip, Irving and Billy get into all kinds of hijinks that forge a weird but adorable bond between them.
Rather than diving headlong into Knoxville's big smiled introduction and violent brand of slapstick, the movie begins with a lumbering series of scenes to establish this maudlin backstory. The filmmakers attempt to inject humor and energy by focusing on the scandalized looks of the non-actors who witness this dysfunctional family's bad behavior at lawyer's offices, waiting rooms, internet cafes and the funeral of Irving's wife, but it remains a weak jumping-off point.
Knoxville, hidden behind impressive prosthetic makeup that ages him decades, never breaks character, whether he's haggling with a harried estate sale attendee or sexually assaulting a brawny male stripper. Between this, the road trip narrative and running gag of messing with people who don't know they're being pranked, Bad Grandpa will draw inevitable comparisons to Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat and Bruno. And even though this brand of comedy is one Knoxville's done before, Bad Grandpa can't really compete.
In Cohen's movies there's a thread of social commentary--be it on racism, homophobia or American hypocrisy--that gives the audience something to consider beyond just his character's scandalous behavior and the often reprehensible reactions from real people. There's no such clear commentary at work in Bad Grandpa, as Irving wanders from one place to another making tired sexist and racist jokes that most often earn eyebrow raises, nervous laughter and startled guffaws from those he converses with. The real problem is that director Jeff Tremaine tries to have it both ways, keeping true to the devotedly dumb jokes this crew is known for while also trying to build a moving grandfather-son story around it.
While believable as a crass and dirty old man, Knoxville definitely loses his charm as Irving, and falls especially flat when reaching for sentiment. Nicoll is cute and responds well to the clearly coached improv setups (you can sometimes see the receiver in his ear), but he's not a strong enough actor to save the emotional arc of this story, a framework that also becomes an obstacle to the comedy. The free form of previous Jackass films meant that any gag less than sidesplittingly bonkers could be cut-- you barely had a chance to catch your breath from one hilarious moment before another was thrown in your face. But with plot points to make in Bad Grandpa, Tremaine can't cut away from setups as freely. Would-be punch lines are deadened and scenes trail on with awkward endings, where the ruse likely had to be revealed before cops were called in.
For all its faults, Bad Grandpa ends with bang. I'll stay vague to avoid spoilers, but amid the craziness of a polarizing American pastime, Knoxville and Nicoll's commitment to their characters makes for an intensely funny finale that riffs off a joke we've seen before, but takes it to a whole new twisted level. Bad Grandpa is subpar movie, but it's got some solidly shocking moments and a few standout bits of comedy. And be sure to stay through the credits, where Tremaine has included outtakes as well as footage of what happened after the pranks were over and Knoxville's true identity is revealed. I found it helped alleviate my anxiety over laughing at people who were clearly distressed by what they'd seen.