“Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” is the first film to bear the “Jackass” name that doesn’t open with a disclaimer. It’s perhaps a sign of the gang’s aging, particularly on the part of frontman Johnny Knoxville, that their new film is light on potentially deadly stunts. Knoxville and Co. (actually, minus much of the Co., though frequent collaborator Spike Jonze and regular director Jeff Tremaine are present) show some signs of mellowing here, which is a strange thing to say about a movie that features a scene where the protagonist explosively shits on the wall of a family restaurant.
The real dangers lie in the form of retaliation from the outraged victims of the film’s deranged gags, whose baffled, horrified reactions become the actual source of humor. Think about Knoxville’s oversexed octogenarian Irving walking around a grocery store, cramming food down his trousers and bitterly feuding with the clerks who bust him on theft. It’s a lame idea for fiction, but suddenly funny when the clerks aren’t in on the joke. The more outlandish the idea, the more it works, such as when the geezer patronizes a black bar during a male strip show. Even less funny as pure fiction, but fall-out-of-your-seat-funny when it makes a leap to half-reality.
“Bad Grandpa” takes Irving, a character featured in previous “Jackass” installments, and gives him an entire narrative, albeit one with the slight coloring of documentary that comes when your players aren’t all aware that they’re starring in a major movie. Irving, joyous that the recent death of his wife has lifted any limitations on his disgusting libido, finds himself the caretaker of eight-year-old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll). As they travel across the South to return Billy to his drug-dealing father, their always inappropriate behavior serves to emotionally terrorize everyone they meet.
The skits, which still feel like skits even with the overlaid narrative, hit more often than miss, with Knoxville’s crass sensibilities and apt usage of Irving’s age making for some outrageously awkward, hilarious moments. These work well on their own, but less so as components of the ostensible story, one with five credited writers (including Knoxville, Tremaine, and Jonze). It doesn’t help that Knoxville frequently adjusts Irving’s demeanor, with his attitude oscillating from aggressive to senile to horny to mean to slightly charming or even caring depending on the scene. This all leads to a final sequence that aims to be heartwarming but mostly comes off as unearned.
Even as Knoxville now mainly inflicts cruelty on innocent bystanders, “Bad Grandpa” lacks the suffocating smugness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s similar movies, which are more infinitely more clever, but dripping with a nasty contempt that doesn’t exist here. However, at times it still feels like a line is crossed, with a few incidents bringing the unwitting participants to tears. When the credits show glimpses of the pranks being revealed to their victims, the film suggests that it’s all in good fun, something we can only hope is true.
Near the start of my career as a film critic, I reviewed “Jackass Number Two” with a sense of horror at myself for laughing at the intense sadomasochism of the series. I softened my stance a little when reviewing “Jackass 3D,” but now, I surrender. What we have here is something undeniably crass and sincerely vulgar, but with as many laughs as Melissa McCarthy’s past three movies combined. And as for that lack of disclaimer, there’s no longer any need for me or anyone else to caution moviegoers about the cesspool in which they’re about to wade; from the title alone, you’ll know whether or not this is your thing before watching a single frame.