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Entries in Bad Grandpa [2013] (1)

Sunday
Oct272013

Bad Grandpa (2013)

All the World's a Stage

Let's begin with a retraction: While praising La Camioneta recently, I suggested that people looking to avoid being enlightened at the movies would be better off seeing Bad Grandpa instead. I wrote that, of course, before seeing the film, whose trailers make it seem like a lame spin-off of the reality-prank-series, Jackass--and who needs that in their life? I do, apparently, because Jeff Tremaine's new comedy hasn't yet left my brain.

The premise is simple: Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville), a perverted, eighty-six-year-old widower with an appetite for beer and black women, is tasked with driving his mischievous grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), from Nebraska to North Carolina. There, Billy will reunite with his drugs-and-computer-parts-dealing father (Greg Harris), who only agrees to take the boy in after being promised $600 a month from the state. The road trip acts as a framing device for Tremaine and co-writers Knoxville and Spike Jonze to up the Jackass ante with hidden-camera pranks that bring real people into this twisted family drama.

Prank movies only work if the audience goes in cold, so I won't spoil the set pieces (Bad Grandpa's trailers have already given away too much, including a climax that should've been the year's biggest laugh-riot surprise). The film digs deep into the comedy of uncomfortability, and it's a testament, I guess, to either Americans' tenuous restraint or their fear of getting arrested that Knoxville was not beaten to a pulp or arrested during filming. Tremaine sets his stages effectively, building up gags that seem obvious from a third-person perspective, but which must have been horrifying and awkward to the poor people who wandered into his frame.

While this is the Jackass crew's first foray into scripted (or at least plotted) material, many will recognize Sacha Baron Cohen's influence all over the picture. Bad Grandpa distinguishes itself from movies like Borat and Bruno by constantly questioning its own narrative integrity. Cohen's films don't really do the hidden-camera thing, as the creator's purpose is to trip up people who are essentially bred to perform in a media culture. Whether it's recording a stadium's reaction to a sabotaged rodeo or getting Pat Buchanan to say something stupid, Cohen's targets and situations are almost always those fashioned from existing constructs--that is to say, the "victims" would have been milling about in front of broadcast cameras, regardless of he and his crew showing up.

Tremaine and Knoxville alter the formula by setting their misadventures in the real world, and inviting everyday people to help advance the plot of their fiction. Irving is broke, so he enlists Billy to help him shoplift food; they get caught by several convenience store clerks and wind up dining and dashing at a restaurant instead. Irving gets tanked on cheap beer, and so Billy pushes him around in a shopping cart--which ends up in a fast-food drive-thru line. And on and on.

Though the audience has no doubt that what they're seeing is fake, they're constantly left to wonder if and when the actors will break the fourth wall and let them in on some of the setups. Indeed, the jarring switch from messing with passers-by to fake-tender bonding chats between Billy and Grandpa becomes a sick game in and of itself. The meaning of which I can only imagine is to challenge our own perceptions of the crap we accept as "reality" on TV (yes, even outside the realm of "reality TV").

Indeed, the most fun I had while watching Bad Grandpa didn't come from the corpse-violation and diarrhea jokes (though both are done very well). Rather, I couldn't stop thinking about how much fun Knoxville and Nicoll must have had during what amounts to a multi-week acting exercise. They never break character, except during the end credits, and the movie has an air of unpredictability that had me wondering where the lines between reality and fantasy were drawn; in one scene, Knoxville takes the brunt of an airbag to the face, and Nicoll's reaction is one of genuine surprise.

My only complaint is that many of the more outrageous gags (i.e. the ones in which Knoxville comes closest to bodily assault) are cut short at the climax. I suppose it would have ruined the fiction to show a worried production assistant running into frame with a waiver just as old Irving was about to take a punch to the kisser. But cutting from a really intense moment to the main characters driving along carefree was a bit much--especially after the third instance.

No doubt, many of you will write off Bad Grandpa as lowest-common-denominator garbage, as you likely have the Jackass films. I'm truly sorry for your loss. In the last ten-plus years, Tremaine, Knoxville, and Jonze have created exhilarating and hilarious motion pictures that surpass stupidity by virtue of their elaborate designs and expert executions. Despite the brand-name, these are not home-video montages of morons shooting themselves with staples in their back yards (not all of them, anyway); they are outrageous feats of engineering and daring that border on performance art. Bad Grandpa throws us in the trunk and hauls ass down an undiscovered highway that's just as likely to lead to comedic enlightenment as it is to a canyon. In either case, we'll die laughing, guaranteed.