Starring: Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll
Directed by: Jeff Tremaine (“Jackass,” “Jackass Number Two”)
Written by: Johnny Knoxville (debut), Jeff Tremaine (debut) and Spike Jonze (“Where the Wild Things Are”)
When the history books are written on popular culture in the early 21st century, MTV’s “Jackass” TV and film series will likely be remembered as its currently thought of by the general public: a bunch of stupid guys recording themselves doing stupid and/or gross stunts, spawning legions of dimwitted (read: teenage male) copycats. That would be a shame, though, since lead Jackass Johnny Knoxville and his band of co-conspirators gleefully cook up intricate and anarchic pranks and stunts you can’t help but giggle at. Yeah, they often end with someone getting covered in vomit or smacked in the nuts, but they make it look fun.
One of the standout segments in the series featured a character named Irving Zisman, an 86-year-old man played by Knoxville in heavy makeup, now expanded to feature-length in “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.” Crotchety and hapless, Zisman is charged with driving his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) across the country to stay with his father in the paper-thin plot. Along the way, Zisman and his grandson interact with an unsuspecting public, cameras capturing the genuine reactions of real people as they see what they think is an old man load his dead wife into the trunk of his car or get his penis jammed in a vending machine.
If this formula sounds familiar, well, it is. Sacha Baron Cohen seemingly pumped the well dry with “Borat” and “Bruno,” but Knoxville and director Jeff Tremaine end up avoiding the biting satire Baron Cohen went for and instead freshen up the formula with some genuine sweetness and heart. The character of Zisman isn’t designed to expose awfulness or hatred a la Borat. Knoxville and company just think it’s funny as hell. And with the majority of “Bad Grandpa,” they’re absolutely right. Jokes falling flat are par for the course in films like this, but the gags that do hit will have you rolling. The penis in the vending machine mentioned earlier scores early (and makes you wonder who would want to ever look at a cell phone pic someone took of an old man’s wiener in Coke machine), and a farting contest between Zisman and Billy ends with a disgusting-yet-hilarious explosion of poop.
The real gem in the whole endeavor, though, is Nicoll. He’s such a marvelous straight man to Knoxville’s antics, you’ll half wonder if he even realizes this is all a big fake out. A scene where Nicholl’s Billy happens upon a patient stranger and insists the man is his new father is funny and gentler than you’d expect, and the outrageous “Little Miss Sunshine” inspired finale turns the chubby boy into an eerily convincing pageant girl with moves better suited to a strip club. Knoxville’s cover may be blown to the point that Irving Zisman will never be able to resurface again, but at least the old man got a nice send off.