My heart dropped like a rock! Bile rose in my throat! A wave of nausea assaulted my stomach. My palms began to sweat, and my hands shook. My pulse raced out of control. I felt light-headed to the point I feared I might faint. I briefly considered leaping off the Suspension Bridge. What caused these alarming symptoms you ask? Allow me to explain.
Last week when I began looking through the theater listings in search of a film for this week’s column, I began by first eliminating the movies I already had seen, and then I crossed off those I had no interest in watching. When I was finished, I had nothing left, and so I repeated the process, but this time I considered how tired I was of science fiction and big special effects and that I wasn’t really up for animation or run-of-the-mill comedies. And when I stared at the lone remaining choice, the aforementioned symptoms hit me with the force of a runaway 18-wheeler coming down I-70 from The Highlands.
I blinked once. I blinked twice. I blinked a third time. But the title didn’t disappear. Indeed it just defiantly glared back at me: “JACKASS PRESENTS: BAD GRANDPA.” And here we are. As we all know, life is full of surprises, and this was a big one for me. Although I dreaded watching this film with every fiber of my being, it turned out to be much better than I had anticipated. Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying this was a great film, but, despite some predictably tasteless crap (literally), the movie was funny in places, and it also was somewhat touching.
If you are familiar with Johnny Knoxville and his buddies, you know that their thing is setting up and performing outrageous stunts on themselves and each other. But this film is a departure from their norm because it uses an actual storyline in springing its surprises on unsuspecting participants whose reactions are recorded via hidden cameras ala Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” show.
As the film begins, we meet 86-year-old Irving Zisman (Knoxville), whose wife, Ellie (Catherine Keener), has just died. At the ensuing (and shockingly bizarre) funeral, Irving’s daughter, Kimmie (Georgia Gates) and her 8-year-old son, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), make an appearance, and halfway through the service she takes Irving outside and drops a bomb on him. She is on her way back to prison for violating her parole, and she wants Irving to deliver Billy to his dad (Greg Harris), who lives across the country in Raleigh, N.C. And this sets up the frenetic road trip at the heart of the film.
A macabre event at the funeral leaves Irving in charge of his wife’s body, and he decides to take her with them on their trip so that he can give her a proper burial. Thus, he and Billy load Ellie in the trunk and head for Raleigh. Along the way they have a series of adventures that are at times tasteless and gross, but some of them are very funny because of the reactions of the people who have no idea they are participating in a movie.
The developing relationship between Billy and his grandfather is the nucleus of the film, and it ends up imbuing the movie with an unanticipated warmth. At first Irving sees Billy as nothing more than a hindrance to his plans of chasing women, but as their trip proceeds, the bond between the two of them continues to grow. The chemistry between Knoxville, whose makeup is terrific, and Nicoll is simply superb, and they succeed beautifully in making us really care for their respective characters.
During their journey Irving and Billy encounter a variety of people including bikers, male strippers, a wedding party, and participants at a bingo game, and all of these segments contribute humor to the film. But the two parts that really stood out for me were the ones where Irving literally attempts to box up Billy and mail him to his dad and where Irving manages to enter Billy in a children’s beauty pageant. In an online interview Knoxville explained what was involved in shooting the pageant segment.
“Well, I thought it would be funny to prank an eight-year-olds’ beauty pageant. But that was just a small part of it and then we got together and wrote around that and then we reached out to these people in North Carolina who actually put on children’s beauty pageants. So we had them put on a beauty pageant, using all the people they usually use. So all the contestants and parents think they’re going to a beauty pageant. They’ve worked with these people before so it’s all real to them. We had false walls and cameras hidden all over the place. There was a lot of work put in it. Jackson spent two months learning the dance routine and he had to play a little girl. We had a choreographer working with him on the dance; we had a lady who does the pageants training the girls work with him on his routine, on his walk. It’s a lot to pull off.”
Because of the profanity and graphic nature of some of the sight gags, “Bad Grandpa” is unsuitable for the younger set, and while some of the pranks are pretty gross, many of them are very funny because of the hidden cameras. I’ll readily admit I dreaded watching this movie, but it turned out to be much better than I thought it would. In fact, I don’t even feel like a jackass for awarding it the final score of a very surprising seven.