Johnny Knoxville has absolutely no shame and it’s probably that defining quality that has made him and his Jackass franchise as successful as it’s been. To a certain extent, it’s what drove Chris Farley’s success two decades ago, and what makes Melissa McCarthy such a successful comedic actress today: They will stop at nothing, including their own humiliation, to extract a laugh out of their audience. There’s a certain bravery to it, and when you add the fear of extreme physical pain into the equation as Johnny Knoxville does, it is all the more impressive.
Knoxville’s heady combination of fearlessness and a complete lack of shame may put him on the sociopathic spectrum, but it also makes the Jackass movies one of the most enjoyable experiences you can have in a theater. Granted, I have absolutely dreaded each and every Jackass movie going in (and this is the third I have reviewed), but it never takes more than a few minutes for Knoxville and the gang to kick loose the movie snob from my bowels and elicit paroxysmal, almost lethal laughter out of me. If it’s possible, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa may be the funniest Jackass movie yet. There were moments during the screening, in fact, in which I could sense that I was that moviegoer with the obnoxious laugh that rose above everyone else’s, a problem only compounded when I found myself uncontrollably giggling during otherwise quiet moments because I remembered something that had happened 20 minutes before.
The reason why Bad Grandpa is even more effective than the previous installments is because Knoxville adds a Borat element to his stunts. In the other Jackass movies, Knoxville’s gang seemed to be performing for their own sick pleasure, drinking horse spunk and shooting rockets out of their ass in order to impress each one another. Here, Knoxville brings in an unsuspecting audience of average middle-Americans, and for the most part, the best moments in Bad Grandpa do not involve Knoxville’s stunts themselves, but the reactions he elicits.
Most of the physical comedy you see in Bad Grandpa is not unlike what you might find in the lowest of bawdy comedies: The oeuvre of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence over the last decade, for instance, or a Farrelly Brothers movie. The difference is, those moments are scripted, take place on a set, and the reactions are provided by actors. But when Knoxville — dressed in full Grandpa regalia — takes his grandson into a diner and attempts to impress him by unleashing a monster fart only to shit all over the wall, you don’t laugh at the act itself because, ew, that’s disgusting. You laugh at the horrified reactions of the restaurant patrons who — constrained by politeness — are trying not to make a scene at the expense of what they think is a doddering old man whose ass just exploded all over a Waffle House wall.
Granted, Bad Grandpa does owe a lot to Borat, but unlike Sacha Baron Cohen’s movies, Knoxville is not using his character to make fools of unsuspecting onlookers. He’s making a fool of himself, and he, director Jeff Tremaine, and co-writer Spike Jonze are finding the humor in the natural reactions of concerned Southerners who see an eight-year-old drinking beer, or funeral goers reacting to a corpse falling out of a coffin. He’s not making fun of them; he’s capturing their their natural responses to absurd situations.
There’s even a few moments of (probably unintentional) satire in Bad Grandpa, particularly in a scene in which Knoxville’s character dresses his eight-year-old up like a slutty China doll and enters him into one of those Toddlers and Tiara pageants. I won’t spoil the huge reveal, except to say that at one point, Knoxville’s character tosses a wad of one-dollar bills at his grandson, though the message that he’s trying to get across to the mothers in the audience — that they treat their own daughters like strippers — is completely lost on them, so frantic they are to cover their daughters’ eyes.
I’m not kidding, either, about the fact that Knoxville deserves some Oscar consideration. I know that no one in the Academy would ever consider it, and that mainstream critics would find the notion laughable, but consider this: Johnny Knoxville is so completely convincing as the horny, drunken grandfather with a taste for black women that more times than not throughout the film, I forgot that there was a 42-year-old stuntman/comedian underneath the makeup. But unlike Kate Winslet or Daniel Day Lewis, who have 47 takes and perform in a controlled environment surrounded by people who understand they are playing a someone else, Knoxville — in an uncontrolled environment — remains in perfect character, even as menacing non-actors threaten to beat him up. There are several instances, in fact, where large scary men only refrain from pummeling Grandpa Irving because they don’t want to hit an old man, but Knoxville’s taunts at times are so obnoxious that decorum and manners threaten to collapse. Yet, Knoxville presses on.
Or, take another instance in which Knoxville — in perfect character — is able to sing and dance around like an old fool in his car without betraying the fact that he knows an airbag is about to pop out of his steering wheel and smash painfully into his face. He never braces for it, or even flinches, nor does he break character after he’s smacked.
It is easy to dismiss the Jackass movies as raunchy, depraved juvenilia because that’s exactly what they are, but the degree of difficulty is much higher than for, say, Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Cruise to play another version of himself in a period piece or while allowing someone else to perform their stunts. Indeed, even as a real — and very angry — woman finger-points and berates Grandpa Irving for shoplifting, Knoxville remains calm in his doddering and oblivious character, though he had to know that he was only seconds away from getting his ass kicked. There’s no way George Clooney or Brad Pitt or Brad Cooper could stay in character under that much duress.
Late in the movie, another character is asked to berate the eight-year-old kid in front of a motley motorcycle gang, The Guardians of Children, whose mission it is to protect abused children. You can sense, in the actor’s eyes, that he’s terrified, and that he wants nothing more than for the scene to end so he can reveal to the bikers — who have him pinned in and are yelling at him — that it’s all just a joke for a movie. “Please don’t beat me up!” his eyes suggest. But not the ever-fearless Knoxville, who crashes into a line of their motorcycles in his car, and casually drives way, dismissing the accident as a the clumsiness of an old man. Oopsie. That combination of bravery and stupidity is exactly what makes Bad Grandpa not a great movie, but the one that will elicit more laughs than any other in 2013.