The original “Jackass” television show was largely unscripted, relying on stunts and the results of those stunts to get a reaction from viewers. “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” definitely has a plot, but it mixes the reactions of unsuspecting passersby with a fluid script to produce very unique and entertaining results.
One of the characters Johnny Knoxville for the TV series is an octogenarian named Irving Zisman who acts like he is a good fifty years younger than he really is. The character is dusted off and fleshed out for “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” as a married man who is always horny and wishes he could just let go of his impulse control. He is given that very opportunity when his wife unexpectedly dies, which he treats as a chance to party rather than a reason to mourn.
Unfortunately for Irving, other family members have issues that prevent him from reverting back to his teenage years. Daughter Kimmie (Georgina Cates) has been arrested on drug charges, and it looks like she will be going away to the hoosegow for a very long time. That means someone has to take care of her young son Billy (Jackson Nicoll) while she is incarcerated. Her ex-husband Chuck (Greg Harris) lives across the country, and the only one who can drive Billy there is Irving.
Irving tries to play the good grandpa for about five seconds before his glee over his deceased wife takes over. He decides to have a good time and to show his grandson a good time as well. He performs various stunts, such as running through signs on the side of the road and crashing through plate-glass windows. As the newly minted duo travel across the country by car, they make lots of stops and basically wreak havoc everywhere they go.
This is where the film’s unusual mix of scripted and unscripted gets interesting. The stunts and high jinks are obviously already planned in advance. However, the reactions of the unsuspecting people in the vicinity are not scripted or rehearsed. Director Jeff Tremaine does an expert job of placing the cameras in just the right place so that all of these reactions are captured for the delight of the audience. These reactions give the film just as much life and buoyancy as Knoxville himself does.
Although the actors pull off several stunts in a row at times, the film also has some scripted interludes in between. These mostly involve Irving getting to know Billy better, first reluctantly and then willingly. He imparts his elderly, fairly skewed wisdom to the boy, who soaks it up like a sponge. Luckily, writers Knoxville and Tremaine make sure and give Billy his own personality, so he does push back when Irving gets too far out of line. In fact, Billy often seems to be far more mature than Irving; the only thing he can’t do better is drive a car.
Knoxville shows some real range as Irving, taking him from the one-dimensional caricature he was in the TV show to a fully realized man in the film. Sure, he occasionally acts like more of a manchild than an adult, but the audience understands where he is coming from and sides with him more often than not. His pranks feel more like the icing on the cake rather than the whole reason for watching the film.
Though Knoxville does good work, it is really Nicoll who shines as Billy. It’s hard to imagine what a child with a crack-addict mom and deadbeat dad must be thinking when his life gets upended, but Nicoll does an excellent job with a difficult premise. He is also not shy, dressing as a pageant contestant and posing as various other characters as part of Irving’s schemes. The cherub-faced actor had only previously done six roles before ” Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” so it is amazing that he accomplishes so much. He definitely has a bright future in Hollywood should he decide he wants it.