Johnny Knoxville spun off one of Jackass’ most indelible recurring bits into a semi-scripted road comedy with a lot of charm under the prosthetics.
In the early 2000s, the Jackass gang, led by their intrepid captain Johnny Knoxville, embodied the very spirit of youthful anarchy and complete irreverence. Jackass, whether it was on TV, in the movies, or shared on a friend’s laptop in their basement after school, was the kind of thing that could lead to a serious grounding or at least a judgmental rolling of mom’s eyes. Between the reckless stunts and the potty humor, it was a franchise made by twenty- and thirtysomethings but aimed squarely at teenagers and preteens who had MTV access and a love of seeing guys get hit in the groin. Almost nothing could be more juvenile.
In 2010, the boys rode off into the sunset with Jackass 3D, which would have appeared to be their last hurrah due to the tragic death of performer Ryan Dunn in 2011. But in 2013, something curious happened – the Jackass crew came out with another movie, only it wasn’t a Jackass movie, but a fictional, partly-scripted story involving Knoxville playing a perpetually horny old man.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (directed by Jackass helmer Jeff Tremaine) was a feature-length foray into a fairly new style of comedy filmmaking, one that had been largely pioneered by Sacha Baron Cohen with his Da Ali G Show and the surprise hit Borat. Knoxville, like Cohen in those earlier efforts, would play a fully fictional character with a name, a backstory, a motivation, and a ridiculous (but real) set of wants, hopes, and desires. But with the exception of a few supporting characters played by other actors, everything else in the movie would be real, placing the Knoxville character in public, with hidden cameras, and watching how the world reacted to him.
Irving Zisman, an 86-year-old WW2 veteran from Lincoln, Nebraska with a stooped gait, a leathery face, and a complete lack of social grace, was a fleshed-out version of a ‘character’ that Knoxville had played in brief segments in earlier Jackass projects, but here he was the star of his own motion picture. And a pretty charming motion picture it is, in so far as a movie where an old man dubs himself “Jizzy Gillespie” can be called charming.
Armed with some truly excellent, Oscar-nominated makeup, Knoxville plays Zisman as an old man whose inner animal is finally being given free rein after his wife’s death. “She’s in a better place,” Zisman notes in the first scene, “and I’m in a much better place,” he says with relish, shortly before unsuccessfully trying to pleasure himself in a soda vending machine.
Yes, it’s that kind of movie, but it has a shockingly crucial amount of heart; if the vending machine antics illustrate the “Bad” half of the title, it’s the “Grandpa” half of the movie that keeps the viewer sticking around for what is essentially a 90-minute prank. When his daughter goes to jail, it’s up to Irving to take his little grandson Billy (played by Jackson Nicoll in the best guileless-kid-in-a-dirty-comedy performance since Bad Santa) and leave him in the custody of Billy’s deadbeat dad Chuck, 1200 miles away in North Carolina. Even with all the dick jokes and the stunts, what you still have is an essentially heartwarming story about two generations coming together – one an octogenarian, the other a little kid – in the same spirit of youthful cheekiness, on a classic American road trip.
Knoxville smartly recognizes that every old man, no matter how worn down, was once young. One can easily see a single line running through Jackass 3D, to this film, and onto Jackass Forever, a line tracing the Jackass attitude as it approaches aging. In Jackass 3D, the boys say goodbye to childhood (but not childish things), and in Jackass Forever they fully embrace that now they’re the old men, but Bad Grandpa is a kind of projection of the future, and it’s optimistic, hopeful. Just because you’re 40, or 50, or over 80, it doesn’t mean your life’s over, and despite Irving’s saltiness, the film affectionately makes him a big-hearted crank rather than a nasty old bigot.
He’s the kind of guy who’s equally at home among the white, Black, and Hispanic bystanders who get roped into the movie, rather than relying on the cheap laughs of racist buffoonery, which is surprisingly refreshing when it comes to this brand of broad, young man’s comedy. In one endearing scene set among a mixed-race crowd of seniors, Irving freaks everyone out by drinking the ink from his bingo pen, before managing to win everyone over when he breaks out a margarita machine in the middle of gameplay.
This isn’t to make the film sound like a kumbaya-singing affair of harmless feel-goodery – after all, that bingo hall scene climaxes with Irving bragging that when he sprays lime juice on his “schmeckle,” he doesn’t howl, so he’s free of STDs – but it is a movie that taps into some genuine emotions, and surprising sincerity. Scenes of Knoxville making his way down the road, singing along to oldies on the radio, with a kid by his side, actually feel real, and it’s only partly because of the makeup.
It’s mostly because of the clear fondness he has for the music, the even clearer fondness he has for Nicoll as a young actor, and the true love of performance that is constantly visible in his eyes, piercing through the layers of latex. Bad Grandpa is sophomoric, vulgar, and rough around the edges. But it’s also a movie that lights up with the energy of youth while being tempered with the quiet acceptance of age. All of that, plus fart jokes. What more do you really need?