“Will the outrageous old man character really be able to carry an entire film?” Surely everyone thought this when Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa was announced. But when the first trailer, which I found genuinely funny, was released, I immediately decided I was on board. I went into this film with fingers crossed, hoping they’d be able to capture the spirit of Jackass in this new film.
Now I get to write a plot synopsis, which immediately marks this as the easiest Jackass film to review. Elderly Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville) is ready to embrace the bachelor life after the death of his wife. Before he even gets a chance to indulge himself, though, his drug-addict daughter tasks him with transporting her eight-year-old son, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), cross country to his stay with his father due to her impending prison sentence. Billy has his mind on a quiet fishing trip while Irving is itching to get himself into some trouble with the ladies. They pack up the corpse of Irving’s wife and hit the road. Chaos, hijinks and bonding ensue.
I was willing Bad Grandpa to succeed. One of the things that has made Jackass so watchable is the camaraderie amongst the cast members. When you’re laughing along with the guys in the film, it almost creates the impression of watching it with friends. As such, you find yourself wincing at their pain all the more. I’ve built up such goodwill towards the Jackass team that I feel genuinely sad to report that Bad Grandpa isn’t very funny.
There are laughs in this film, but not very many. The film is a mixture of public stunts and scripted scenes. The scripted scenes are mostly there to frame and set up the stunts. There are problems with both sets. For the first half of the film in particular, the scripted scenes are awkward and full of repeated exposition.
Almost all of the film’s laughs come from the stunts, but there are problems with these scenes, too. Some of them are rehashes of old Zisman scenes we’ve already seen. Another issue is the responses they elicit, or rather fail to elicit, from the subjects of the prank. For me, the character Irving Zisman works best when his outrageous actions create conflict. Johnny Knoxville is a funny guy and his ability to exacerbate and antagonise in this disguise is a great source of comedy. For whatever reason, perhaps it was the choice of pranks or locations, most of the onlookers just seem to be confused.
The film’s big set piece, a stunt played out at a children’s beauty pageant, is funny, but even this feels unoriginal, coming years after Little Miss Sunshine used a similar finale.
I’m not sure if the uneasy feel of the film stems from the relation of the story to the stunts. The stunts are silly and light, which works well in the confines of a feature-length Jackass compilation (they’re also infrequent in Jackass, while here they have to hold an entire film together). However, the story they’ve decided to use here is held together by tragedy. Irving Zisman is newly widowed. Billy is abandoned by his mother, a drug addict headed to prison, and his father is a stranger to him, although he sees enough to know he’s utterly unpleasant. These are two displaced people forming a relationship in the scripted scenes. It’s difficult to switch between that element and the stunt scenes, where the bonding between the two rarely translates and has to take a back seat.
It’s a shame, too, because towards the end of the film the scripted scenes with Zisman and Billy are pretty good. I found it quite touching and sweet as it drew to its conclusion, certainly more so than I would have expected going in. The rapport between the two actors is good (both performances are terrific), as they seem to genuinely like each other. Unfortunately it takes a while for these scenes to warm up, and they sit uncomfortably with the stunts.
Perhaps the scene that best illustrates the awkward clash of tones in Bad Grandpa is the one in the biker bar. Without looking to spoil it, it involves a fall out over Billy around a gang of bikers whose club aim is to help abused children. It doesn’t end up being funny, just odd. It’s kind of fascinating to watch, but it feels like the two styles are clumsily forced to together.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is a frustrating film. It occasionally works where it shouldn’t and more commonly doesn’t work where it should. Unfortunately, the film thing plays like a TV special that got out of hand. There are a few laughs and the end of the film (particularly the end credits, which suggest that the on-screen chemistry from the Jackass films continues behind the scenes) is quite poignant, but it just doesn’t fit together.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is out on the 23rd October in the UK.
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