I have a weird compulsion of needing to watch every movie nominated for an Oscar in any category before the awards every year (or, at least the ones that are available, which is usually all but about 5 or 6). This year, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa was nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, which just pissed me off, seeing as 1) I hate the type of humor in these types of movies and TV shows, 2) I think the Academy likes to nominate a film like this every year just to seem edgy, despite the fact that there are many legitimately good edgy ones that could be given a chance (even in one of the major categories), and 3) I didn’t think covering Johnny Knoxville in old man makeup was really all that impressive. In fact, halfway through the movie, I started to see right through the disguise, and I imagine many of his “marks” (the word they use to describe the people they are going to prank) did as well.
In short, this is a 90-minute quasi-narrative about an old man who is unfit to be anybody’s father figure, taking care of a foul-mouthed grandson whose mother abandons him. It would be quasi-accurate to say that the father corrupts the boy and teaches him a slew of bad habits a la Adam Sandler in Big Daddy, but the kid is honestly kind of a little brat even before the grandpa interacts with him. The film is shot to be a road trip wherein the “bad grandpa” is ostensibly trying to get the kid to his biological father, but he slowly learns to appreciate his grandson along the way.
The reason this doesn’t really work as a narrative is kind of ironic: most of the “side characters”—the people whom the grandpa and grandson interact with—are real people reacting to what they think are real situations. This seems like a semi-neat effect in theory, but it makes for a weak narrative because the story is largely based on these people’s reactions to the family. Never once do we feel like we are watching a story in the form of a movie; we instead feel like we’re watching a Punk’d or Jackass marathon featuring the same idiotic crew.
Another weakness is that almost every scene of the movie could be classified as some sort of vulgar prank. There are a few semi-funny pranks, though they tend to be overly crude and scatological in nature; there isn’t a hint of subtlety to them. If I had to pick a best one, it is a certain “dance scene” performed by the boy (in drag) at the end of the film—but I don’t think I even laughed then.
A much more interesting aspect to the movie, though, is in the reactions that this lewd group of actors got from the unsuspecting public. The people’s reactions and comebacks were often funnier and more clever than anything the Jackass crew had written (as I’m typing that, I realized that will probably not surprise anybody).
Example: a good 30% of the movie features the grandpa character hitting on middle-aged women who most people would not consider conventionally attractive. None of the featured women get offended or insecure at this guy asking them to come back to his hotel room; instead, they often brush him off calmly with a laugh. This happens on the street, at a fast-food drive-thru, and at a Ladies’ Night at a strip club. The women look like they’re from the middle class or even lower class; there is even a scene shot in a Bingo hall with several people on oxygen and/or with missing teeth. They generally at least pretend to be flattered, and some of the women even quasi-flirt with the old man, though I’m sure they thought they were just being polite.
Another genuinely touching scene involves a group of bikers at a bar towards the end of the film, who are watching an act of emotional child abuse take place. It is heartening to see them make the right choices as soon as they see what is going on, but at the same time I felt bad knowing that they were just minutes away from figuring out they weren’t really committing a good deed. (They were all told about the nature of the movie after the scene had filmed, but I couldn’t figure out if they were given any monetary compensation for their time. In many cases, they deserved to be.)
There are a few people in the movie who overreact, though what’s a store manager to do when two hooligans are eating groceries without paying for them? There are also a few who for some reason don’t say anything during the cruder setups (such as the boy “chugging a beer” with his grandpa at a picnic table alongside a running trail). For the most part, though, this is a movie about people who are good-natured, kind, and often funny even when faced with actions that are extremely rude. I don’t know if that is what the Jackass crew was looking for, but it’s what they got. (I also don’t know what implications this has for our society—does this mean that our everyday lives are so full of these kinds of situations and characters that we no longer blink when confronted with them? I hope not.)
In the end, I learned a good lesson from this movie, even though I don’t think it was the one its makers intended. Good lord, I hope the Oscars next year are Jackass-free.