For reasons not worth detailing here, this review of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa arrives a wee bit overdue.
Critic's Grade: B+
Entering theaters 11 years to the day after the first Jackass
release deliriously exceeded all expectations and made apocalyptic headlines across the country, Bad Grandpa
became the franchise's fourth consecutive release to debut with top grosses, and nobody seems the least surprised that an ambling road movie with few stunts and unknown or unrecognizable leads bested Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
When MTV canceled the show after three years of escalating controversies, the resultant feature—anarchic jumbling of slapstick whimsy and daredevil brio thrown together on the fly for negligible costs—was widely presumed to be the swan song for the ragtag repertory company of damaged clowns and giddy masochists. Upon their box office triumph, the same cultural wardens predicted a deluge of similarly styled antics whose cumulative effects would render a generation unable to be shocked. That never quite happened, much as the Jackass brand depends upon a good-natured citizenry, but the media might be a tad desensitized these days.
The presumed impetus for chief provocateur Johnny Knoxville to play his old-man character was the B-List actor's ebbing anonymity, and, while the caked latex disguises, Los Angelenos have evidently developed sufficient familiarity with hidden-camera shoots that the more outlandish stunts were best accomplished away from the coasts. Thus begins this Jackass narrative, with Knoxville's newly widowed Irving Zisman driving his grandson across the country to be dropped with deadbeat dad. Pretending toward ordinary cinematic conventions means some slow-going in the early reels, but the trademark stunts shorn of the usual Jackass rhythms truly startle in this new context. The best arrive so perfectly structured that it seems near impossible for innocent bystanders to be just that.
As happens whenever you collect a core fan base of conspiratorial nihilists, a staunch subset has questioned the legitimacy of real responses to fake stunts, but does fake even mean anything this far through the looking glass? (The diner patrons weren't probably foretold of the diarrhea splatter but it also wasn't probably diarrhea.) We're watching a fictional story of made-up characters following a script, and the eyes popping out of backwoods onlookers add their own local color. The farther he travels inside America, the further Knoxville and the talented child actor Jackson Nicoll press their man-on-the-street badinage toward creepiness. Nicoll's unilateral decision to be adopted by friendly strangers waiting nearby probably wrings the most laughs, but Knoxville's addled ferocity midst failed pick-ups attains more intriguing dimensions.
Turns out you can teach new tricks to a certain sort of dog, and Knoxville's persistence proves weirdly humanizing. Throughout his travels, save for a bravura standoff with one loudmouth braggart over culpability for a flattened penguin statue, he accepts defeat in a manner bittersweet for all the lurid nonsense or infantile pranks. If there's any emotive truth to the scenes between Grandpa and the boy, if the Jackass worldview admits a sincere regret, there are pauses that tug at a gaping envy for lost youth. That's what the scenes suggest, anyway, and a dozen films have proven Knoxville can't act.
Aggressive appreciation of bodily harm heavily informed the skater culture that whelped the boys, but no one before had so ecstatically prioritized the agony of defeat nor gave less reason. If the Evel Knievel tradition ennobled danger as sanctified thrill—one never felt so alive as when chasing death, that sort of thing—the MTV crew actively emphasized the degree to which their lives were shaped by restless egotism and palsied impulse control. They weren't laughing in the face of the grim reaper, they were just laughing, but writing off the act as artless hooliganism isn't fair either.
Juvenile tendencies aren't completely separate from a complicated relationship with one's own mortality, after all, and careerist fuck-ups this driven must've had concerns even then about how long they could physically maintain so demanding a shtick. If Knoxville, at a tenderized 42, worries over advancing age, there are worse ways to combat the fear than doubling up the years for the length of a feature. Older but no wiser, and still obsessed with seizing the easy laugh with lunatic aplomb, Bad Grandpa isn’t quite art, and it's not quite growing old gracefully. This, though, you may want to try at home.