Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa: Child performances don't have to be gritty to be brilliant

It's no secret I'm a fan of Jackass - and Bad Grandpa, with a superb performance by newcomer Jackson Nicoll - is Jackass at its best.

I make no apologies for my enduring affection for the Jackass films, which I have written about before on this site. It’s certainly one of the most moving trilogies ever made about a group of male friends who divert their latent desire for one another into increasingly extreme and masochistic acts of daring. I realise that all action or buddy movies are about how the macho rough-housing pals or combatants would really love to be picking out furniture together or summering in the Hamptons, but it’s never been as transparent as it is in Jackass. (John Waters called Jackass 3D “a gay snuff film made for straight, blue-collar families.”)

The latest picture to bear the Jackass imprimatur—Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa—is of an altogether different stripe. It’s a spin-off film centring around one of the rare actual characters from the Jackass series, Irving Zisman (played by the group’s leader Johnny Knoxville in old-age make-up, slacks and cardigan), an elderly reprobate who specialises in taking one of his grandchildren into public places and sharing booze, cigarettes or obscene insults with them. It’s pure Candid Camera stuff: the joke is on the concerned members of the public (rather than the Jackassers as it usually is), and was seen to best effect in this sketch from Jackass 2, in which Zisman and his “grandson” flaunt their illegal behaviour and then insult those good citizens who remonstrate with them. I didn’t say it was sophisticated.

It’s not clear during the first half of Bad Grandpa whether the joke will hold up for an entire 90-minute movie. Some of the early sketches which have been hung on what we will shall loosely call the “plot” about Irving taking his grandson across America to stay with the child’s estranged father (and there are five writers credited for that story, as well as three for the actual screenplay) don’t quite take. Irving whoops and laughs in a hospital reception when receiving news of his elderly wife’s death (“I thought the old bat would never die!”) to the confusion of the woman seated next to him. Good-hearted strangers fill the pews at his wife’s funeral in the absence of family, only for them to have to suffer the horror of the open casket being tipped over. Passers-by react with dismay—and a fair few smartphone snaps—when Zisman gets his penis caught in a vending machine. Bad Grandpa looks at this point like a bad idea, an anti-prestige project for its co-writer and co-producer Spike Jonze to deflect some of that pesky critical acclaim he’s been saddled with for ingenious films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

In fact, it improves greatly. Partly it’s that the conceits get tighter: an attempt by Irving to post his grandson across America in a large cardboard box meets the kindly objections of two women in the courier dispatch office, while a raucous Little Miss Sunshine-style climax at a beauty pageant brings the house down. Credit is due partly to Knoxville, even if he never really looks old or decrepit enough as Zisman. The real star is his young sidekick, Jackson Nicoll, who plays his grandson Billy. Nicoll is called upon to keep a poker face during the most outlandish scenarios, and even to instigate his own improvisations (casually raising the subject of his mother’s crack addiction in crowded waiting rooms, for instance, or approaching men in the street to request that they adopt him). The young stars of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant (which I have reviewed in this week’s NS) are rightly attracting great acclaim for their performances but let’s not pretend that child performances must only be gritty and authentic and heart-rending to be worthy of merit. A Hollywood-coached cherub Nicoll certainly is, but his chutzpah and control in Bad Grandpa is often astonishing.

If the film never strays into the suspenseful comic minefield of Sacha Baron Cohen, whose kamikaze spirit made Borat and Bruno genuinely prickly entertainments, it’s because there is no satirical intent. The only motivation is to grab laughs on the hoof, wherever they might be found. Sometimes that’s enough.

Bad Grandpa opens 25 October

Johnny Knoxville plays Irving Zisman, the pseudonymous "Bad Grandpa". With Jackson Nicoll. Image: MTV Films.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.