The dawning of cinema had the likes of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin risking their lives with daring stunt work while making moviegoers crack up.
Here in the modern film era, we have the immortal, the deranged, and the considerably less refined Johnny Knoxville.
Knoxville has tried to parlay his Jackass fame into an acting career, and he hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire. So, because huge paychecks are tempting, Knoxville has returned to the Jackass well numerous times with three official movies, and his body has paid a tremendous toll. The man has thrown himself into the path of buffalos and bulls to score good laughs and, oh man, has he gotten those good laughs.
But as big as the checks can be, internal bleeding and broken limbs lose their luster after a while.
So now we get Bad Grandpa, a sort of Jackass movie that has a narrative mixed into hidden camera stunts (very much in the tradition of Borat). Knoxville gets to play one part for the film, that of Irving Zisman, an 80-ish letch of an old man who has shown up in past Jackass skits.
This allows Knoxville to keep the Jackass films going, while lowering the likelihood of his head disengaging from his body for the sake of laughs.
The plot (Bahahahaha! Plot!) involves Irving begrudgingly taking his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) on a road trip after the kid's crack addicted mom goes to jail. Along the way, the two get themselves into all sorts of hijinks. Director Jeff Tremaine (who piloted all of the Jackass films) provides some bonding, scripted scenes between Knoxville and the kid that are actually quite sweet at times. These scenes act as the buffers before and after the Jackass-type madness.
Early in the film, Irving is presiding over his wife's funeral, for which he has recruited an audience full of strangers, including church choir members, to sit in and help him mourn. The results are hilariously disturbing, and just about as evil as any hidden camera gag has chosen to be.
Nicoll is quite the little scene-stealer. Knoxville has to labor for laughs, subjecting his body to a rapidly folding bed and shooting through a store window in a faulty kid's ride. Nicoll needs only to put on a bemused face or keenly deliver a zinger to show up his older co-star.
The film's best moment involves one of those disgusting child beauty pageants, and it belongs to Nicoll. The kid winds up in a rather convincing little princess "Toddlers and Tiaras" getup, politely going through the motions of a pageant until the talent competition. That's where he strips off his sailor outfit and does his best stripper dance to "Cherry Pie." When tabulating the year's funniest movie moments, Nicoll's flailing away on the ground while Knoxville showers him with dollar bills will surely contend.
If you go to this looking for Steve-O or Bam (Knoxville's Jackass partners), you will be disappointed. The boys are nowhere to be seen, although co-producer Spike Jonze and actress Catherine Keener do show up, unrecognizable in heavy makeup.
Speaking of makeup, I'm thinking Bad Grandpa should actually be a legitimate Oscar contender in that category. Knoxville's old age makeup is killer; I'm not surprised that he's able to trick a lot of onlookers during the hidden camera stunts. It's some damn fine work, much better than Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer's old age makeup in J. Edgar. Those guys looked like California Raisins.
There are a lot of good gags, with a few clunkers. Most of them are worth at least a good chuckle, while others are but-gusting funny. Irving's visit to an all-male dance club results in some ball-hanging fun, and a fart contest with his grandson has some hilariously explosive results. I also liked a bit involving a virtuous motorcycle gang, and one where Billy asks strangers on the street to be his new daddy.
Stick around for the credits, which feature some funny outtakes and, best of all, scenes of the duped stunt victims finding out they are in a movie. It's actually a relief to see those poor funeral attenders get the news.
To get primed for Bad Grandpa, I watched a lot of Knoxville's old stunts, including the various hits he took from large animals. Those will always be funny, and I could watch them 50 times in a row and laugh each time.
I'm going on record and saying I would prefer to see him dial it down in future film ventures, as he does in Bad Grandpa.
No, his latest isn't as uproarious as some of the more insane Jackass stunts, but it does represent a profitable, safer, yet still crazy career direction for Mr. Knoxville. It's the sort of movie that should please his fan base while blessedly lowering his risk for early, bone-smashing mortality.