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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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