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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism