It’s probably weird to start off a film review by mentioning a television series, but there’s a particular Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski’s character on 30 Rock) song that pops to mind at this moment. It’s called Balls. The lyrics go a little something like ”balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls balls.” The reason I mention this is because any time I watch a Jackass affiliated production, I spend a lot of time wondering one thing: why are straight men so fascinated with balls?
Johnny Knoxville, star of Bad Grandpa, is no exception to that bunch of barely mature hetero men who just plain and simply love playing with balls. He shows this off by letting a saggy sac of ‘em hang out a foot low from his briefs in the film, and let me tell you, that’s not the only time balls (and their adjacent pal) are present. Fake genitals on a fish and fake genitals stuck in a soda machine round that out pretty nicely. But Bad Grandpa is about more than balls. It’s about love.
Not just the love of poon-tang that Knoxville’s titular character, Irving Zisman, has, but also the love for his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) that develops over the course of the film. And that’s where some of the folks behind Jackass surprise: the existence of a story. I’m not talking an incredibly detailed story, but rather a loose narrative that ties every prank that populates Bad Grandpa together: Billy’s mom is going back to prison, Irving’s wife just died, and the two have to embark on a road trip to get Billy to his deadbeat father’s house. Many will be surprised to see the name Spike Jonze credited for the screenplay alongside lead actor Knoxville and director Jeff Tremaine, but it’s weirdly fitting that someone like him is around considering it’s the first work from the gang that actually has some semblance of a story.
But, as mentioned, the story doesn’t matter much. As any who have watched the Jackass crew in action will know, it’s all about the pranks and stunts. In the case of Bad Grandpa, the slew of stuff everyone’s seen too many times to be entertained by is actually mixed in with a number of laugh-out-loud worthy gems. The dirty old man trope is nothing new, and Knoxville doesn’t really do anything to add to it, rendering many of his oversexualized comments towards unsuspecting women just plain boring and unappealing to watch. And yet, by recalling Abigail Breslin’s delightful strip-tease performance in Little Miss Sunshine (although in a far raunchier manner), Jackson Nicoll steals both the film and the kids talent competition he’s in away in the last act.
There’s not much of a show to steal though, as anything can be impressive when you’re nearing the end of the film. One of the biggest issues with Bad Grandpa, something that wouldn’t have happened if they had gone with a serialized series route, is the lack of payoff for every prank. This isn’t to say that some of the reactions of their marks aren’t downright great, but when you don’t get that big reveal — y’know, the Candid Camera smile or the Punk’d gang rushing out — it feels like there’s a little bit of fun missing. Going along with the story after a reaction takes away that entire act of discovery and realization that seals the prank as something great.
The shift between prank and story is also punctuated by a notable difference in cinematography. Where the pranks are executed in as close to documentary quality as you can get, scenes between Billy and his grandpa traversing the county are that of a low-budget feature that dreams of being more. It’s not something most people who plan on watching this would notice, but it certainly is a distracting feature. One thing it doesn’t take away from though is, thankfully, one of the film’s best features: the (now Oscar nominated) make-up work. No it’s not about the fake johnsons and what not, but rather about the pretty dang impressive work on Knoxville’s face.
To think that so many people would fall for Johnny Knoxville’s old man act and all the pranks that come with it is pretty weird, and yet, it happens over and over again. But there’s only so much that anyone watching can handle before the repetition just gets too boring to go on. As many simple charms as Bad Grandpa has, it can’t escape the fact that it it’s not dirty enough to be Jackass and it’s not polished enough to be a great feature.
Directed by Jeff Tremaine; written by Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze, Jeff Tremaine, Fax Bahr, and Adam Small; starring Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll, Catherine Keener, and Spike Jonze.