The elderly protagonist is the brain child of Johnny Knoxville, who, after his tenure with “Jackass” and supporting roles in movies like “A Dirty Shame” and “The Dukes of Hazard,” emerges as one of those rare performers who will do just about anything to get a laugh, including make a complete fool of himself (or risk serious injury in the process). There’s almost something endearing about that quality. He plays Irving Zisman, a leering and dirty old man in a sweater vest whose sex-crazed existence makes him not so much a character as a punchline, and his antics are punctuated by a series of outbursts, accidents and sight gags that have no particular meaning other than to cause embarrassment in those unfortunate enough to wander past him in a public setting. That kind of goes with the territory, however, especially in a movie where there that is essentially the sole point.
And speaking of points (or lack thereof), the plot really has none of distinction. After a very brief setup in which Billy (Jackson Nicoll), Irving’s grandson, is plopped in his lap after his mother is whisked away to jail for violating parole, the two embark on a cross-country road trip in which the boy is to be handed over to his father, who only desires him because of the $600 child support that comes attached. That means the journey is obviously more important to the movie than the destination, but oh what a journey it is. After not much liking one another towards the start of their adventures, little Billy and Irving bond gradually through an elaborate exercise in public pranking, ranging from a drunken night at a strip bar, handling a dead body in public, a farting joke gone horribly wrong at a local diner, attempts at theft in a convenience store, and eventually an elaborate hoax that involves Billy dressing up as a little girl in order to participate in a child beauty pageant. There are no words to describe the reactions as Billy’s female persona gyrates on a stripper pole during the talent portion, but if you happen to be walking past a screening room showing said movie, you’ll surely hear the roars of laughter from inside.
I was among those ranks. I laughed, cackled, and often felt completely embarrassed by doing so. This is not deep meaningful comedy of course, even in context with this format. I am reminded of Sascha Baron Cohen’s ingenious “Bruno,” about a flamboyant European fashion reporter who tries to start a new life for himself in the trenches of a still-conservative American culture. That movie too featured cameras honing in on every-day wanderers for laughs – like “Candid Camera” did for television in the 80s – because that was the whole point: to use its story as a way of capturing the reactions of normal people who had no knowledge that they were in on a prank. The difference, perhaps, comes down to a core value established by Cohen in his movies: aside from being funny and outrageous, they were also knee-deep in an awareness of certain ignorance permeating from those targeted by the jokes. “Bad Grandpa” has no thought like that in its busy little head; or any other thought, for that matter. There exists one purpose here and nothing more: to create a series of randomized sight gags that are shocking, repulsive and embarrassing to exploit the feelings of its unknowing observers, and then string them all along on a plotline devised to simply serve as a platform for ensuing perversions.
This is not an insult in any regard. The movie has a lot of fun with the concept, and creates howling laughs. I admired the almost masochistic chutzpah of Johnny Knoxville, who seems disconnected from the foresight of causing himself pain prior to many of his dangerous stunts (including one that features him flying through a department store window after trying to fix one of those coin-operated rides on the sidewalk). The story lists five different contributors to the material, suggesting a lot of ideas might have been tossed around to use as sight gags at earlier stages (the bloopers over the closing credits even show another actor in old lady makeup, who never actually made it into the movie). This could have been long and exhausting just as much as it is fun and amusing, but the material thankfully never wears out its welcome – at a mere 92 minutes, all the right jokes play out and are dismissed before an audience’s chuckles start turning into yawns. By the end, little Billy and old Irving come to a mutual admiration for one another while fishing over a bridge, but all my thoughts were still with that poor church choir watching an old man dance with his wife’s corpse.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Comedy (US); 2013; Rated R for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use; Running Time: 92 Minutes
Johnny Knoxville: Irving Zisman
Jackson Nicoll: Billy
Georgina Cates: Kimmie
Produced by Derek Freda, Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine; Directed by Jeff Tremaine; Written by Fax Bahr, Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville, Adam Small and Jeff Tremaine