What’s wrong with this picture: Being John Malkovich. Adaptation. Where the Wild Things Are. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa? “One of these things is not like the others,” as they say on Sesame Street. “One of these things doesn’t belong.”
The first three are highly regarded Spike Jonze films. The one that doesn’t appear to belong is Bad Grandpa but the amazing thing is it is like the others. He’s one of its five writers.
I learned only recently that the visionary auteur and frequent Charlie Kaufman collaborator has been part of the Jackass scene since the beginning. The oversight might have something to do with never having tuned in during its three season MTV run or watched even one of the three previous movies it spawned.
So sitting down for the fourth release in the shockingly profitable franchise (The first three debuted at number one; 2010’s Jackass 3-D had the biggest Fall opening ever), I had reason to believe there’s more to the phenomenon than its famously crude pranks and suicidal stunts. Imagine my surprise when it turned out there’s less.
One reason is that the gang’s not all here. Johnny Knoxville goes it alone in the latex guise of 86-year-old Irving Zisman, a character he introduced in the series’ last season. Another is that the daredevil antics are history. Bad Grandpa is the first in a new generation of Jackass projects, the result of a reboot necessitated by the reality that one cast member (Ryan Dunn) is dead and the rest are well into middle age.
For the first time, a Jackass production has a plot. It’s not much-sort of Borat meets ABC’s What Would You Do? with dick jokes-but it’s a plot. The idea is Irving’s wife’s died and he’s eager to make up lost time with the ladies. Just as he’s about to blow his life savings on lap dances, though, his crackhead daughter is sent to the slammer and he’s saddled with her 8-year-old son Billy (Jackson Nicoll), who needs a ride cross country to the home of his deadbeat dad.
The two climb into the old man’s Lincoln and hidden camera hilarity ensues. Among the high points: Irving attempts to rape a soda machine and-you guessed it-gets his prosthetic pee pee caught in the coin slot as bystanders look on in bemused disbelief. He gets the same reaction when he publicly shares a six pack with the boy, who promptly pukes his guts out. Ditto when the pair engage in a farting contest at a roadside eatery. Though the punchline is “Grandpa, you sharted!” and clearing their table will necessitate cleaning the wall behind it, never is heard a discouraging word.
As the closing credits show, the filmmakers were nearby to reveal the joke. Consequently the rowdy roadtrip never generates the sense that things might backfire with dire results as did Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and Bruno. Those were gonzo high wire acts by comparison.
As long strange trips go, Irving and Billy’s feels more long than strange. It’s a timid, surprisingly saccharine 92 minutes by Jackass standards and, given the participation of artists as creatively accomplished as Jonze, decidedly uninspired. Not that it matters given the loyalty of the franchise’s base.
Once again its latest has debuted in the number one spot-a comedy that has maybe half a dozen solid laughs and no real outrageousness but nonetheless brings in double its budget in three days and knocks a film as great as Gravity off the top after three weeks there. They may no longer risk life and limb for their art but Bad Grandpa leaves little doubt these merry pranksters can still shock. If only at the box office.