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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.

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

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