By Melissa Agar
Bad Grandpa (Paramount, 2013) – Director: Jeff Tremaine. Writers: Fax Bahr (story), Adam Small (story), Spike Jonze (story, s/p), Johnny Knoxville (story, s/p), Jeff Tremaine (Story, s/p). Cast: Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll, Greg Harris, Georgina Cates, & Kamber Hejlik. Color, 92 minutes.
I am a 42-year-old woman. I love independent film and theatre. I am counting down the days to the next series of Downton Abbey premieres on PBS. I do, however, harbor a secret. Despite some of my more refined tastes, there is a 12-year-old boy who occupies some real estate in my brain and who makes me laugh at the dumbest, most puerile things. I often find myself laughing at the silliest stuff, and don’t get me started at my helplessness in the face of a good dirty joke. It was this 12-year-old boy who compelled me to go see Bad Grandpa even though I bought the ticket with shame in my voice. It was also the 12-year-old boy who nearly gave the 42-year-old woman an asthma attack from laughing so hard at this silly, juvenile comedy.
Bad Grandpa is a hidden camera comedy following the adventures of the elderly Irving Zisman (Knoxville) and his grandson, Billy (Nicoll). Irving’s wife has died, and the widower is looking forward to getting back out there and enjoying his independence in his pursuit of a “little tail.” His plans are thrown off track, though, when his daughter shows up at the funeral and tells her father that because she is in trouble with the law again, he will need to drive her son to the boy’s father in North Carolina.
The duo gets into Irving’s old car and head from Nebraska to North Carolina. Along the way, they meet a bevy of unsuspecting real people who get pulled into their shenanigans, whether it’s the clerks at a Mailboxes Etc. type store who are shocked to discover Irving trying to mail his grandson to North Carolina, the restaurant patrons who are audience to their fart contest, or the moms and contestants at a beauty pageant. As they travel, Irving and Billy develop a bond that leaves both of them wondering if perhaps leaving Billy with his dad is the right thing to do. And oh yeah, Irving’s dead wife is riding around in the trunk of the car.
I’m almost ashamed at how hard this movie made me laugh. I could feel my empathy trying to kick in as the stunts Irving and Billy pull grow more and more demented. At the same time, as twisted as the pranks pulled were, they also illuminated something pretty fabulous about human nature. Unlike a film like Borat, which served to demonstrate how ignorant and intolerant people could be, Bad Grandpa illustrates an opposite thesis: when faced with absurd circumstances, people, for the most part, react with tremendous patience, tact, and even kindness. They will stop and tie a little boy’s shoe. They will help a drunken old man being pushed in a shopping cart by a little boy. They will offer a little boy a ride home even after he’s asked what their stripper names are. They will smile and graciously deflect an old man’s attempts to flirt.
The argument could be made that we’re more wired to be patient with children and the elderly than, say, a crass Eastern European man, but there is still something relatively enlightening to see people in this patient and ultimately good-humored light. All of these people, after all, had to sign releases to allow their faces to appear in the film. (Less enlightening, of course, is how prone people are to turning a blind eye. I am hoping the producers of the film edited out appearances by the police following, for example, Irving and Billy carrying Grandma’s corpse into a hotel room or the duo sitting on a park bench drinking beer.)
As funny as the stunts and pranks are in this film, I was surprised at the heart that beats at its core. Irving and Billy are a charming duo, and the growth of their bond throughout the film is sweet despite being wrapped in raunch. Knoxville and Nicoll have a strong chemistry, and there are times when it is clear that Knoxville is as charmed by Nicoll as Irving is by Billy. The boy’s delight in their pranks is infectious and helps get the audience on his side rather than sympathizing with their hapless “victims.”
At the end of the day, Bad Grandpa is not great cinema. It won’t earn its creators a shelf-full of awards outside of an MTV Movie Award or two. It is, however, a mindless way to spend an afternoon at the movies and a good tonic to some of the deeper and more challenging films that have occupied screens this fall. The 12-year-old boy made a good call in reminding the 42-year-old woman that sometimes a good, hard, silly laugh is just as rewarding as a haunting, thought-provoking film. For a kid, he’s got some great ideas.