This weekend, Ridley Scott’s certifiably bonkers “The Counselor” is getting a lot of attention for a sequence where Cameron Diaz has sex with a car. But that might not even be this week’s most insane sex scene. In the opening moments of “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” Johnny Knoxville, as elderly widower Irving Zisman, goes out looking to get lucky. After finding that all of his neighborhood Asian massage parlors are closed, he of course decides to stick his wang in a soda machine. We watch, via hidden cameras, as strangers react to watching a withered old man dry hump a vending machine and then, of course, get stuck. Even before the credits roll, we’ve watched his rubbery phallus pulled like a Stretch Armstrong doll, at some point becoming so cartoony that it’s hard to imagine anyone not thinking it was staged. Take that Cameron Diaz.
Unlike the “Jackass” movies that preceded ‘Bad Grandpa’ (the last of which, 2010’s “Jackass 3D,” made a more vital case for the dimensional format than “Avatar”), there is some attempt at a narrative trajectory here. At Irving’s wife’s funeral, his deadbeat daughter brings her young son Billy (Jackson Nicoll) and tells Irving that she’s going to jail. She asks Irving if she can drive Billy across the country and deposit him with his father. He begrudgingly agrees, worried that the little kid will “cock block” him, since his dead wife hadn’t put out since “the ‘90s.”
All of this so-called “plot” is conveyed, of course, at the funeral, with Irving unwittingly bringing the microphone (that he was using to give the eulogy) outside, so that the assorted guests at the funeral (mostly choir members) are uncomfortably listening in on the conversation, with both Irving and Billy’s mother calling him horrible things. Then Irving comes inside and knocks over his dead wife’s casket, sending her body sprawling to the floor. It’s that kind of movie.
This is the format that the rest of the movie’s 90-odd minutes will follow: Knoxville-as-Irving and Billy (Nicoll proves himself to be a more-than-game comic performer) get into crazy situations with real-life people reacting to their inappropriate chicanery. It’s a road movie mixed with some kind of surrealist version of “Candid Camera,” and for the most part it works surprisingly well. The trick of the movie, directed by ‘Jackass’ founding member Jeff Tremaine, is that the earnest attempts at emotional complexity are treated with the same fly-on-the-way shoddiness as the rest of the movie, so that a heartfelt sequence in a diner where Billy asks Irving why his mom abandoned him is punctuated by Irving unleashing an explosive charge of diarrhea along the back wall of the restaurant.
The ‘Jackass’ movies were always a hoot, anxiously positioned somewhere in between high art performance pieces and gross-out YouTube videos, but they were somewhat insular, confined largely by the pranks of a tight-knit bunch of dumb-ass buddies. What ‘Bad Grandpa’ does so well is take that absurdity into the real world; more specifically, middle America. Saying that ‘Bad Grandpa’ is aiming for some kind of high-minded cultural critique is probably off the mark, although Spike Jonze (who co-wrote, produced and, in a handful of deleted scenes teased during the end credits, co-starred in ‘Bad Grandpa’), during a post-screening Q&A at the Hamptons International Film Festival following his beautiful, delicate “Her,” described the movie as “experimental,” you can understand what he was getting at. By introducing a character as awful as Irving (and he really is—racist, sexist, grossly inappropriate) into these loaded scenarios, the filmmakers go a long way in showing that even the most horrifying scenarios can be greeted with decency and kindness (after initial waves of shock and revulsion).
All that said, ‘Bad Grandpa’ does tend to drag, especially towards the end, when they set up a potential powder keg of conflict that sadly never goes off (Irving is going to hand Billy off to his abusive father in a bar populated by rowdy bikers whose whole M.O. is about protecting children). But it also works better than it has any right to, and produces at least a handful of moments that won’t just have you laughing, but crying with childish joy. There’s a restless inventiveness to many of the gags that are matched only by the outrageousness of their surroundings. Even though the opening sequence featured an aforementioned gag with a prosthetic phallus, it doesn’t mean that a sequence later in the movie, when Irving visits a seedy African American male strip club, can’t delightfully provoke, especially when an elongated, withered ball sack starts to droop out of Irving’s underpants.
Knoxville is still as willing as ever to make a fool out of himself, although his physicality is sometimes off the mark—he oftentimes seems too spry for a supposedly 86-year-old man. The chemistry between him and Nicoll, though, is undeniable, and Nicoll seems to be a genuine comic find, willing to go anywhere Knoxville will lead him (and maybe a little bit beyond). In one of the movie’s more jaw-dropping sequences, Knoxville enrolls Nicoll in a “Toddlers & Tiaras”-style beauty pageant and turns the talent competition into a vulgar choreographed striptease. It’s fearless, filthy, funny stuff, and if Nicoll is capable of this at nine, god knows what he’ll be like a few years down the line. Jonah Hill, you’ve been warned.
‘Bad Grandpa’ isn’t going to remembered, fondly or otherwise, possibly by the time you exit the theater and get in your car. But it should be given points for at least attempting something bold and energetic, even if it wasn’t entirely successful. At the very least it showed that there is still life left in the "Jackass” franchise, even if it is 86 years old and suffering from debilitating arthritis. [B]