So after countless TV series and three films, the Jackass crew decided to try a different tack – a scripted, narrative-driven film. And you know what? It works. Boy, does it work.
In Bad Grandpa, newly-widowed dirty old man Irving Zisman (Knoxville) takes a journey across America with an unlikely companion, his eight-year-old grandson Billy (Nicoll). Irving, 86, now free from the shackles of marriage, is keen to get out and sow his wild oats. But he's stuck with having to drive his grandson to the kid's father in North Carolina (his mother is back in prison on a drugs charge). And so the pair engage in a road trip, along the way encountering male strippers, child beauty pageant contestants, mourners at a funeral, biker bar patrons and swathes of unsuspecting citizens.
Bad Grandpa (or, to give it its full title, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) treads on some potentially dangerous ground: a feature-film spinoff of a TV sketch-show character. So many have tried and failed before, but the good news is that Bad Grandpa genuinely delivers. Surprisingly, the format really works – the road-trip plot breaks up the set pieces, giving the audience a respite between the laughs. And the laughs are there, in bucketloads. It's not as gross as many of the Jackass TV skits, and it smartly knows when enough is enough; none of the skits or stunts outstays its welcome.
It's a hidden camera film, in much the same way as Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat and Bruno movies, but it's nowhere near as cruel. The stunts do depend on the reactions of unsuspecting observers (and many members of the public clearly didn't want to be part of a Jackass movie, leading to quite a few obscured faces), but the butt of the joke is mostly Knoxville's Irving. The plot serves merely to keep the characters moving from place to place, so they can find new "victims" to prank, but it really does work. And the film is surprisingly warm-hearted, which is not something you'd expect from the Jackass gang.
What really makes the film work is the charisma and chutzpah of the two leads. We've seen Knoxville doing these silly (often disgusting) pranks for some years now, but confining himself to one character here really focuses his performance – he's a genuinely good actor (and the superb makeup job helps too). The real find is young Nicoll as grandson Billy. He's got great comic timing, and brings a real sweetness and innocence to the part. The two manage to make thier relationship feel geniune, and that in turn enhances the comedy. Because Bad Grandpa is often rude, sometimes crude, and always funny. Really, really funny. It's easily one of the best comedies you will see this year.