Wednesday, October 9, 2013

'Bad Grandpa' (2013) directed by Jeff Tremaine

Beware the curse of the sketch character spinoff!  For every The Blues Brothers there's a thousand shattered dreams: failed gambles that a character that works in sketches has the potential to carry a feature length film.  A bad comedy is the most painful of bad films and with a genuine stinker under their belt a hitherto wildly popular comedy character can become irrevocably tainted with failure. 

Worryingly, Bad Grandpa (or to give it its full title Jackass presents: Bad Grandpa) fits squarely within this genre.  I'm vaguely familiar with the Jackass series, sort of remembering this character from the shows I've seen on TV.  The gag is that Johnny Knoxville in old man make-up gets himself into scrapes you wouldn't expect an old man find himself in.  As far as sketches go it's a decent idea; people's reactions to seeing an old man in Jackass extreme situations adds a small yet sigificant twist to the format. Also, most importantly, Johnny Knoxville does a brilliant caricature of a grumpy, slightly confused old man struggling to retain his dignity in a world that keeps kicking him in the crotch (often literally).

He's funny.  But 90 minutes of him?  Thankfully, Bad Grandpa delivers.  A combination of genuinely imaginative set pieces, tight editing, well-selected footage and a smattering of luck in getting some great reactions adds up a film that manages to cross the finish line without ever becoming boring.  Ten minutes more would probably have killed it but thankfully Tremaine instinctively knows when enough is enough.

I know that kid looks annoying but trust me on this one - he's not.
Bad Grandpa has a mere whisper of a plot, the bare minimum needed to keep the characters moving.  We open with the titular grandpa, Irvine Zisman, receiving the news that his wife has died.  To the confusion and slight horror of the unsuspecting woman sitting next to him he reacts with open glee, declaring his intentions to sex up everything with a double X chromosome.  But before he can get down to work he has his 8 year grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) foisted on him.  Wanting to be rid of him as soon as possible, he quickly makes arrangements to hand him to his hideously scummy criminal father.  And so we're on a road trip across the country with endless scrapes and japes along the way and maybe, just maybe, the two will learn the real value of teamwork, friendship and family.

It's barebones, but a more complex plot would be a distraction. There's close to zero emotional heft, but as a well oiled gag delivery system this setup more than succeeds.  Even so, we're on shaky ground to start; audiences are rightly suspicious of a feature length spinoff and to add insult to injury we now have a 'cute' kid character to bounce off.  

Jackson Nicholl's Billy is practically the platonic ideal of the young American boy.  He's self-centred, greedy, emotionally manipulative but with a core of innocence under the attitude - frequently reminding me of a prototypical Bart Simpson. Characters in this mold have torpedoed better movies, but to a visible sigh of relief Jackson Nicoll is not only tolerable but bizarrely likeable.  Nicoll is more than a comic foil to Knoxville, carrying entire scenes on his own, to the extent of shouldering the physical burden for the big finale. Simply, he's a great actor with superior timing - pulling off comedy pranks with a deadpan expression and never, ever corpsing.  

Ultimately though this is very much Knoxville's film, and his considerable charisma makes it all work.  He manages a strange balancing act with our sympathies: keeping us laughing at people but not victimising them. Though he confuses, harasses and scares the crap out of anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path he does it without an ounce of sadism or malice. Deep within all the gross-out gags, violence and self-abuse there's a weird wholesomeness to Knoxville, exploited here to the fullest.

It's a weird paradox that Bad Grandpa managing to be both manipulative and good-natured at the same time.  This is uplifting, and though it's of course carefully edited, the reactions of the public to Knoxville's antic paint middle America as gullible, easily befuddled buffoons, but nice buffoons.  Everyone is friendly, ready with a laugh, quick to trust and perfectly willing to laugh at absurdity.  Some of the funniest moments in the film are simple shots of people reacting to their unexpected entry into the fictional universe of a Hollywood comedy.

Considering this is all shot with hidden cameras it's consistently well framed.
This movie is so eager to move onto the next set piece that you don't have time to think too hard about what's going on - although that's also because you're laughing too much.  It's only afterwards, when I started pulling apart the construction that you have some slightly uncomfortable realisations.  One of the central motivations of the Bad Grandpa is his constant horniness; there are innumerable scenes of him propositioning complete strangers, all of whom react to his lewd suggestions with good humour and a smile.  But there must be a darkside to this; a pile of footage on a cutting room floor somewhere of women being genuinely terrified disturbed by a strange old man approaching them and breathlessly offering cunnilingus.  It might seem a little odd to criticise a film for what's not in it (especially when including material like that would kill the comedy stone dead), but nonetheless it's a rare sour note.

That aside, Bad Grandpa is far better than I was expecting.  I haven't laughed out loud this much in a cinema since This is the End, the number of home-run jokes is astonishingly high with just one that obviously doesn't work. The very nature of this style of filming invites a refreshing on screen chaos, the reactions to Knoxville's antics hero so unpredictable that every scene has something surprising lurking within. Yet behind this anarchy there's a of rock solid professionalism: a tangible desire to make a very silly film the absolute best very silly film it can be.

Bad Grandpa is on general release from 23 October.

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