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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Uncommon People sweeps you along as if you were trapped in a mosh pit

Author David Hepworth has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge, and a towering stack of anecdotes.

First, a warning. It is perhaps best not to tackle David Hepworth’s work if you are the argumentative sort. He presents the central themes of his books in a manner that does not encourage discussion or debate: for maximum enjoyment, you should allow yourself to be swept along as if trapped in a surging, front-of-stage mosh pit.

Having argued persuasively in his last book that 1971 was the definitive year in the history of rock, Hepworth now takes as his theme the death of the rock star, killed off, like so many things that we thought would be part of the landscape for ever, by the arrival of the “mystique-destroying internet”. The end of physical product – Hepworth comes from a generation that spent hours gazing lovingly at album sleeves, seeking clues about the lifestyles and personalities of the performers – and the arrival of social media were the primary factors that led to the extinction of this breed of people whose names once formed the world’s cultural lingua franca. We still have global superstars in pop music but, he argues, the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber and Kanye West are not rock stars, whatever the last of these may think. Music has become “just another branch of the distraction business”.

Starting with the day Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in September 1955, Hepworth leads us through the next four decades, choosing one significant day – often only important in retrospect – each year in the life of an artist. Some obvious candidates (Bob Dylan, the Beatles) make more than one appearance, but there are some surprising inclusions, too. It is typically provoking of Hepworth to bring the curtain down on the rock era as early as 1995 and make his last subject not Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher but an American software nerd. Marc Andreessen, the developer of an early web browser, helped to usher in an age in which “smart young people looked on and dreamed about being tech stars in the way the previous generation had dreamed about being rock stars”.

The last man to measure up to Hepworth’s rock star definition was Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. Cobain was a fan who unwittingly and unwillingly became an icon and could not cope with the consequences. His suicide note was “like a reader’s letter to a music paper”.

Though Hepworth writes with conviction, his manner is not high-handed or dictatorial. He is not a rock historian in the mould of, say, the Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick or the Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn: you are not lost in admiration at the weight and depth of his research. In a lifetime’s devotion to the music and several decades as a journalist and TV presenter, he has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge and a towering stack of anecdotes. He deploys this weaponry wisely and writes in an easy, fluid style. If he ever turned his hand to thrillers, you can bet they would be page turners.

The best chapters are those in which Hepworth’s choice is surprising, or he approaches it tangentially. His subject for 1978, for instance, is Ian Dury, whose album New Boots and Panties!! sold in its hundreds of thousands, making Dury – disabled after contracting polio as a child – one of the most unlikely success stories in pop. Dury was a complex character who could, like so many of the book’s subjects, be deeply unpleasant. “He had managers,” Hepworth writes, “but he did the manipulation himself.” Earlier in the decade, Hepworth revisits David Bowie’s fabled final Ziggy Stardust show at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, at which the singer announced, rather prematurely as it turned out, his retirement as a performer. It is a typical Hepworth flourish to reveal that the gig was not sold out and that the tour had been losing money. Occasionally, a chapter works less well because anyone with a reasonable rock library or access to BBC4 will know, for instance, that Bob Dylan was largely a self-created persona, that Brian Wilson had a breakdown under the pressure of sustaining his genius or that the launch of the Apple corporation in 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles.

But he is adept at identifying a watershed moment: the growth of teenage consumerism in 1950s America being an essential component of the birth of rock’n’roll; the making of the Beatles coming at the moment they recruited Ringo Starr; Live Aid launching the era of the now-ubiquitous outdoor mega-events; rock wrestling with its midlife crisis in the late 1980s.

On the odd occasion, the idea begins to flag in a way that did not happen in Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – 40 years being a trickier time span than 12 months. But you stick with the book because Hepworth is an inspired phrase maker. He is witty on the seamier side of touring (“They say the only touring musician who doesn’t want sex is the touring musician who’s just had some”), wise on Elvis Presley at the time of his death (“Nobody took being the King more seriously than the King”) and wince-inducingly sharp on Madonna in her early-1990s pomp: “Publicity was not a by-product of what Madonna did, it was the product itself.”

Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
David Hepworth
Bantam Press, 368pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder