Nearly a dozen years since the MTV show went off the air, Jackass has continued its stubborn, improbable run through three films and the death of a cast member (Ryan Dunn). Although the 3-D craze extended the franchise for another installment, the well seemed to dry. There are only so many stunts/pranks/shenanigans the Jackass crew could pull, especially as they all near middle age. Ringleader Johnny Knoxville is 42, and the stunts he could shake off in his 20s probably hurt a lot more in his 40s.
Enter Irving Zisman, a character Knoxville debuted in the final season of Jackass. Donning latex old-man makeup, Knoxville hit the streets for hidden-camera bits with unsuspecting people who reacted to Zisman’s off-color jokes, sexual innuendos, and grotesquely stretched scrotum with horror, amusement, and the occasional threat. The bits became a staple of the Jackass movies, so it was perhaps inevitable that he get his own movie now that the franchise has seemingly run its course.
Presumably titled to take advantage of alphabetical proximity to hits like Bad Santa and Bad Teacher, Bad Grandpa also borrows heavily from Borat by sending Zisman on a cross-country trip. Charged with taking his 8-year-old grandson Billy (a perfectly cast Jackson Nicoll) from Nebraska to live with the boy’s deadbeat father in North Carolina, Zisman makes frequent stops to do things like hit on women (at a male strip club at one point), play bingo, shoplift, and generally get in trouble. Billy is his eager accomplice and wingman, and Nicoll brings a surprising amount of sweet vulnerability to scenes that are little more than interstitials between pranks. That narrative thread connects everything, so Bad Grandpa has a much more linear flow than other Jackass films, but the real attraction is watching an actor in old-man makeup whip out his balls in public.
That’s an exceedingly low bar to clear for success, and Bad Grandpa mostly succeeds in its very modest goal. It’s Borat without the satirical edge, with Knoxville and longtime Jackass director Jeff Tremaine taking the most outrageous parts of that film and escalating them dramatically. Where Sasha Baron Cohen’s high jinks often made an uncomfortable point, Bad Grandpa simply aims for outrageousness. That produces some laughs (Zisman’s visit to the strip club ends in a melee), but more often it feels like Tremaine and Knoxville winking to the audience to say, “Can you believe we did this?” (In an early set piece, Zisman gets his inhumanly elastic penis caught in a vending machine.)
No one will ever mistake the Jackass franchise for good cinema, but it never aspired to that. It was always about allowing the gleeful anarchy of the TV series to escape the constraints of television—to be more outrageous, gross, and profane than the FCC would ever allow. The theater setting serves these movies well because a large, rowdy audience feeds off the films’ energy. Again, it’s a low bar to clear, but all of the Jackass films have succeeded in that regard. Bad Grandpa ostensibly evolves the series by adding a storyline, which has the potential to breathe life into a franchise that had otherwise run its course—at least for an inevitable sequel. Beyond that, Jackass will need another reboot, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if it finds a way to persist.