Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Very Bad Men

If there's one brand of popular entertainment I've never fully been able to get behind, it's the Jackass series with its plethora of stupid stunts, dirty jokes, and bad behavior. It's a series that still sharply divides audiences even after more than a dozen years, and many people I know and otherwise respect can't get enough of the antics of Johnny Knoxville and his crew. Now Jackass is spinning itself off, centering its fourth (FOURTH) feature film around the team's favorite ill-tempered geriatric in Bad Grandpa.

In this actual narrative by series creator and regular Jackass director Jeff Tremaine, Irving Zisman (Knoxville under a ton of makeup and prosthetics) is charged with getting his grandson Billy (Fun Size's Jackson Nicoll) across country to live with his father after the death of Irving's wife and the incarceration of his daughter. What follows is an incredible trip between Nebraska and North Carolina, in which Irving and Billy steal from convenience stores, destroy public property, act inappropriately at a male strip club, infiltrate a child beauty pageant, and risk the ire of a biker gang, all for cheap laughs from their audience and the surprise of those unaware people around them.
I've got a bad feeling about this...
One of the best aspects of the series' Zisman character is that, unlike many of Jackass' usual stunts, his antics are played against normal folk going about their business, unaware of Knoxville's identity. That's the goal of Bad Grandpa, to shock and surprise anybody who is not part of the (hidden) film crew, and by extension amuse the viewer with bewildered looks and moments of anger and revulsion. It's a theme that works, for the most part; some of the best moments are when spectators are frozen in surprise as Irving's dead wife (Spike Jonze, who also co-produced and co-wrote the story) topples out of a casket at a funeral home, or when Zisman gets his penis caught in a vending machine. Knoxville of course has been doing this for a decade, and knows his way around when it comes to catching people off guard. But it's Nicoll who steals the show, the young actor regularly out-acting and out-funny-ing his elder statesman, especially in the scenes in which it was definitely required. After all, few people might have actually recognized Knoxville with all that makeup on, but Fun Size - while a failure commercially - was still advertised and seen enough that many people might have still recognized the kid otherwise.
The implications are staggering.
Naturally the story between pranks is completely unoriginal. Between the road trip, the dead grandparent in the trunk (which ought to have been visited more often), an the beauty pageant strip tease (which is by far the best scene of the movie), Bad Grandpa was definitely written by men who had just seen Little Miss Sunshine (trading Rick James for Warrant doesn't differentiate things much). When you get past all the pranks and stupidity, the story goes exactly where you would expect from more traditional films. The truth is that Tremaine and crew aren't used to making this kind of film, and to expect a cohesive, let alone original, narrative from them would be a mistake. Still, I'm fairly sure Jackass fans aren't looking for that anyway, so their attention will simply wander in those moments while they await the next genuine moment of amusement.
That's one effed-up penguin.
Still - and I'm shocked to say this myself - Bad Grandpa might just be the best thing to come out of the Jackass brand. Sure, there aren't a ton of genuine laugh-out-loud moments; at best most scenes will merely illicit chuckles, and those funniest moments are all in the trailer. Bad Grandpa also lacks the wild, unpredictable nature of the series by limiting what they can do with their mediocre story. But Knoxville, Tremaine and company were never out to make groundbreaking fare, and those who are already fans of the truly unique genre will certainly find enough to feast upon. Anybody else, however, won't find enough to justify the ticket price, though at least this one doesn't go for the extra 3D price hike like its underwhelming predecessor.

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