Johnny Knoxville and his Jackass friends have an appreciation for the classics. In their movies they’ve paid tribute specifically to Buster Keaton and Busby Berkeley, and more generally to the many slapstick comedians and masters of choreography – of both the stunt and musical varieties – who’ve come long before them. Now with Bad Grandpa, they honor another old-fashioned hero, Allen Funt. This is basically a feature-length version of Candid Camera, with the pranks linked together through a basic fiction plot involving a horny old man (Knoxville in age-disguising makeup) on a road trip with his profanely precocious 8-year-old grandson.
It’s not just that the shtick here is influenced by Funt’s long-running and oft-recycled hidden-camera shows. Most of the gags are familiar old tricks that likely were first done on Candid Camera or its copycats. In one well-worn bit, the grandpa, Irving Zisman, is having a tag sale in his home and shocks customers with a demonstration of his adjustable bed, which keeps collapsing, folding his body in seemingly harmful ways. Later he pays a visit to a UPS Store (or similar) to ship the kid to his deadbeat dad’s house in a giant box. I’m sure we’ve seen that kind of thing in numerous incarnations on various hidden-cam shows over the years.
Where they “top” Funt, however, is in their added brand of crudeness and extreme exploits. Surely no one on Candid Camera shot through a storefront window in a rocket-like riding toy or exploded diarrhea on a diner wall. Certainly there was no comedy of male genetalia, of which this movie has plenty, albeit mostly fake. Sometimes it’s as surreal as Irving catching a giant fish in a golf course water hazard, and that fish turning out to have a human-like penis and balls. Let’s not forget, though, that Funt’s first venture on the big screen was with the X-rated hidden-camera film What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, where fully nude women were inserted into different awkward scenarios. That was 43 years ago.
There are plenty of gags that work to hilarious effect, but they’re mostly those featuring the kid, Billy. Played by young Jackson Nicoll (Fun Size), he’s as much the reason to see this movie as Bobb’e J. Thompson was the reason to see Role Models. But it’s not just that he’s a swearing child that makes him entertaining. Nicoll has a knack for deadpan delivery as he ventures out in the city solo and tells male strangers he wants them to be his dad and gives female strangers stripper names that he prefers for them. His weight and his relationship to a lewd old man may draw comparisons to the boy from Bad Santa (non-weight-relevant, Paper Moon is a more acknowledged influence on the film), but he’s far more reminiscent of the chubby halves of the classic comedy duos – only problem is Knoxville is never his match.
What is most disappointing about Bad Grandpa is that it seems to be following the Sacha Baron Cohen tradition of placing fake characters into reality, but it’s not. It’s only Funt all the way. The main distinction might be that Borat was being shot as a documentary with cameras out in the open, while the hidden-camera thing requires a lot more staging and a lot less interesting reaction from the marks. After a while, just seeing gaping mouths from stunned everyday people gets boring. And sometimes it seems the stunt barely even evokes enough visual response to show it in the film. Occasionally it’s like we’re watching unamused people watching a live taping of Jackass.
Never once is any social satire achieved through exposure of candid comments or actions, even during a climactic take on Toddlers & Tiaras type pageants that plays more like a Little Miss Sunshine retread than a hard-hitting commentary or attack. It’s sad that more can’t be pulled out of the real people in the film, especially given how much provocation is at play, since unlike in Cohen’s movies they aren’t aware they’re being filmed. The best exposure is probably what’s captured in a biker bar, though it’s all ironically positive revelations and not very funny.
There is very little in the movie that seems new or that is particularly smart, and maybe that’s fine for much of its intended audience. When I complained about the gags being ancient to a publicist, she told me Knoxville is reintroducing them to a new generation. That makes sense, as kids today have no knowledge of who Funt was, in part because he’s not really a celebrated figure of TV and film history. But maybe there’s reason for that. Do we really need his stuff rehashed if not with a fresh angle or approach?
It certainly doesn’t help that the current hidden-camera show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers also focuses on the humor of elderly doing nutty things, much of which isn’t that far off from Bad Grandpa in concept or spirit (a promo just released this week for the new season has White mocking Miley Cyrus). Also, the recent concert documentary One Direction: This Is Us features its own Candid Camera-inspired moments in which members of the boy band dress up as old people to shock pedestrians with their spryness. Another member did his own hidden-cam shtick as a roadie messing with fans by arguing that One Direction sucks. Those sketches were far more effective, relevant and revealing than anything in this movie. And when the Jackass gang is outdone by the One Direction boys, you know that’s a huge letdown.
The Upside: Worth seeing just for Nicoll, whose deadpan delivery is priceless; some of the familiar gags and jokes are still funny if not very smart
The Downside: The lack of originality and relevancy is a huge disappointment in the wake of not only Sacha Baron Cohen but more recently One Direction
On the Side: Spike Jonze, who co-wrote, co-edited and co-produced the film played an elderly woman in the film, but all of his scenes were cut. Catherine Keener was also cast in the film as Irving’s wife, but her flashback scenes were deleted, as well. A cast-mold dummy of her character (as a dead body) remains in the film, however.