Every time I watch something related to the Jackass family of films, I find myself reminded of Mike Judge’s remarkably funny satire, Idiocracy. In the future depicted by Judge, the most popular television show is called Ow! My Balls and features a man running around aimlessly as he is continually – and creatively – hit in the balls. The entire Jackass franchise is built on a similar premise: let’s watch grown men humiliate themselves, or others, for amusement. It’s a concept that has always left me cold, all the while proving to be a successful formula for teenage boys and overgrown teenage men.
Bad Grandpa is an attempt by Johnny Knoxville and his team to expand their brand into feature films that do more than serve as unconnected sketches of men doing dangerously funny things to themselves and each other; they want to tell a story. The story here is that of an old man named Irving (Knoxville), who is saddled with the task of taking his 8-year old grandson, Billy, to be reunited with his methhead father after mom is sent to prison. Along the way, this grumpy, perverted, foolish old man and his grandson get involved in a number of staged hijinks in front of unsuspecting people. It’s similar, in its own way, to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat in that the joke is on all the non-acting people these fictional characters encounter. Where it’s different is the intent. Borat uses the format to expose the racism, xenophobia, and ugliness in the hearts of so-called “normal” people. It is misanthropy with a satirical edge. Bad Grandpa just wants to have a good time being bad.
And it is bad. Knoxville’s Irving is every bit the dirty old man stereotype the title suggests. The film draws its laughs from the traditional comic double team of foul talking old men and foul talking children. It adds nothing new to either cliché. So, the success of the film is dependent solely on the inventiveness of the situations created by Irving and Billy. On that front, the film is hit-and-miss. Some scenes, like the ones in which Irving acts like a deaf-mute to teach Billy how to pick up women, are wretched and tired. But a few scenes, such as an early setpiece in a mortuary in which Irving tries to eulogize his deceased wife in front of a group of patient church folk that eventually culminates in him knocking over the casket, are absolutely hysterical. The film’s climatic moment, at a child’s beauty pageant, is one of the year’s funniest moments. It plays like a parody of Little Miss Sunshine, while seeming to actually satirize the child pageant culture. I know Knoxville and his team had no such design, so I consider the scene a happy accident.
I recognized going in that Bad Grandpa was not a movie made for me. I am too snobbish in my comedic tastes sometimes, and I figured this movie would have to really do something unexpected to change my opinion. Ultimately, it didn’t, but I can’t say I hated it. I admire the Jackass team’s decision to try something new and risky. I love the make-up work that transformed the young Knoxville into an 86-year old man so convincingly that none of the non-actors mentioned it (I’m sure there were several things edited out to promote the illusion, but the fact that anyone was tricked up close is either a sign of great craft or the fact that people are simply getting dumber by the day). And I loved the beauty pageant, if only because it permanently redeems my guilty pleasure love affair with Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.”
What I take from this is that while Bad Grandpa may not currently be my cup of tea, it did soften my heart. Maybe I’m on my way to being ready for the future. Better protect my balls.