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Is 'Bad Grandpa' "the Anti-'Borat'"?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire October 25, 2013 at 10:46AM

The 'Jackass' crew's hidden-camera feature makes a pointed contrast with Sasha Baron Cohen's, which depending who you ask is either a good or a bad thing.
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Johnny Knoxville as Irving Zisman in 'Bad Grandpa'
Johnny Knoxville as Irving Zisman in 'Bad Grandpa'

In his review of Bad Grandpa -- otherwise known as Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa -- Vulture's Bilge Ebiri calls the hidden-camera prank feature "the anti-Borat." He's not the first person to make the comparison, or, according to Googleeven the 57,000th, but his take on the relationship between the two films is particularly nuanced. 

Sacha Baron Cohen's shtick was all about revealing the hypocrisies and bigotries of his real-life foils, the gun nuts and neo-Confederates and violent dimwits who populated his fallen American landscape.... Knoxville & Co. go out and find a world that’s largely populated by decent, honest people.... By and large, our nation’s unsuspecting bystanders come off pretty well in this movie.

Slate's Dan Kois, whose take on the film is more mixed, nevertheless says he teared up during the penultimate setpiece, which reveals that "when real people see real trouble -- not the baloney make-believe of Johnny Knoxville pretending to poop on a wall, but deep trouble of the sort that makes your heart hurt -- they still sometimes step up to the plate." 

For my part, that's exactly the trouble with Bad Grandpa. As I wrote in my review of the film, Sasha Baron Cohen's mock-Kazakh journalist often pranked those who deserved to be pranked, and the over-the-top absurdity of his central performance put a spin on every encounter. But as outlandish as his behavior can be, Knoxville's elderly Irving Zisman isn't self-evidently absurd: Even when you're in on the joke, it's hard to spot the Jackass star under the latex. (For Your Consideration: Best Makeup. Seriously.) Borat is a walking punchline, but there's no visible reason for anyone to assume Irving Zisman is other than he seems.

Sasha Baron Cohen in 'Borat'
Sasha Baron Cohen in 'Borat'

Borat played on Americans' prejudices, which, in some cases, meant the tacit that any behavior, no matter how appalling or offensive, might conceivably be part of a foreign culture. (For most of the movie's subjects, Kazakhstan might as well be Mars.) But Bad Grandpa plays on -- and, to my eyes, exploits -- their kindness. When Irving knocks over his wife's casket mid-funeral or gets folded in half by a mechanical bed, the shock and the worry on the faces of the strangers around him feels all too real, which in turn makes Knoxville and co's encouragement to laugh at it cruel. ("Oh man, those idiots are actually concerned about that elderly man!") It doesn't help that the butt of the movie's jokes are almost invariably either working-class or nonwhite or both.

The key difference between the two movies comes down to their central performance. Cohen's Borat is a comic tour de force, a high-wire act that could turn disastrous at almost any moment. Knoxville's grandpa is more like a disguise, a way of moving among the unwary and catching them off-guard. In some ways, the distinction seems small, but the difference in the movie's effect is profound, which seems to be true for those who love Bad Grandpa and those who don't alike. 

This article is related to: From the Wire, Spike Jonze


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