Review: Knoxville and Nicoll give ‘Jackass’ spinoff ‘Bad Grandpa’ real heart

It is easy to dismiss the “Jackass” franchise as chaos and stupidity, but it is also wrong to do so. As much as anything else released in the last 13 years, “Jackass” captures a mood that is part of our time, an aggressive comic voice that seems thrilled by the violence and uncertainty of a post-“Columbine”/post-9/11 society. “Jackass” matters precisely because it is totally silly in a world where it is not easy to be silly.

As if to underline that point, “Bad Grandpa” is the first “Jackass”-related project to be made after the death of Ryan Dunn, who the film is dedicated to during the closing credits. While it would seem bodily harm is part of the job description for these guys, up until that moment, they were live-action Looney Tunes, always able to stand up and move on and shake off any amount of grievous injury. Dunn’s real-world demise was shocking because of how pointless it was. If you told me that one of the guys from “Jackass” was eaten by a bear when he tried to ride it while dressed as a beaver, I would raise a beer to that. Dealing with the grief after a drunk driving death can be difficult under the best of circumstances, but it must have been brutal to deal with under a media microscope. It would not have surprised me at all if they had decided to call it a day and retire the brand completely. After all, I can’t imagine Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze, and Jeff Tremaine had any idea how successful this would all be in the first place.

It would have been equally easy to understand if they had done something completely familiar as their first project back, but “Bad Grandpa” is instead an evolution of things they’ve done in the past. Jeff Tremaine, who has been the director on the series since the start, is still working with the same visual tools that he’s perfected shooting hidden camera material for over a decade, but for the first time, they’ve told a narrative, with Knoxville playing a character for the entire film, and they’ve built it so there’s plenty of room for the sort of mayhem they’ve always been so good at in the past. This is akin to what Sacha Baron Cohen does with his characters, but it has the “Jackass” voice loud and clear.

The film opens with Billy (Jackson Nicoll) sitting in a waiting room, talking to any adults who will listen about how his mother is going to go to jail for crack. Nicoll, who was so funny in last year’s “Fun Size,” is the perfect kid for the “Jackass” team to use. He’s got a great sad clown face, and he is excellent at creating instant sympathy when he engages an adult. In another waiting room, a nurse walks in to tell Irving Zisman (Knoxville) that his wife has passed away, and his immediate elation and joy seems to deeply upset the people around him. Irving sees this as a chance for a second wind, one more time around the track, but that’s before his daughter Kimmy (Georgina Cates) drops off Billy before she heads to jail.

Left with the boy, Irving reaches out to his crapbag father on the other side of the country and tells him that he’s on his way to drop Billy off. That’s all the excuse the filmmakers need to send Irving and Billy on the road, creating any number of opportunities on the way for the two of them to introduce some surreal chaos into the lives of unsuspecting real people. That surreality is what I like most about “Jackass.” It’s easy to be mean to someone, to make them a victim of some random cruelty, but it’s far more engaging to make them a party in some random surreality, to involve them in something so weird that their brain stops working correctly for a few minutes. The other best function this sort of comedy serves is when it rubs someone’s nose in a hypocrisy, and there’s plenty of that in the film as well.

Lance Bangs and Dimitry Elyashkevich are both credited as cinematographers on the film, and it’s interesting seeing how much of this is obviously shot hidden camera. It’s far more important for them to hide the camera and get the shot than it is to make it look like “a movie,” and while that choice may throw some people, it’s a choice that they reached having done this for over a decade now. Tony Gardner’s make-up for Knoxville had to withstand some pretty intense scrutiny and allow for a very subtle range of reactions, and it works beautifully. Knoxville is able to vanish into Irving, and on those occasions when a gag involves something extra, like a giant scrotum or a freakishly-elastic male member, the make-up department rises to that occasion as well.

There is a bit of real sentiment that creeps in around the edges of this one, but they don’t make the mistake of trying to make things gooey. It’s not ladled on. There’s just a lovely sort of rapport that develops between Irving and Billy while they’re on the road, and there’s a sequence late in the film where Irving has to make a choice about what he really wants from the rest of his life that is impressive because it’s juggling a lot of things at once. It’s funny because of the way Knoxville involves some real bikers in the scene, it’s genuinely emotional because of how good Nicoll and Knoxville are together, and it’s even terrifying because those bikers don’t know they’re in a movie. I was a wee bit worried it was about to turn into a snuff film.

That danger is what I wasn’t sure they’d ever be able to get back into a “Jackass” film, especially as they get older, but sure enough, “Bad Grandpa” plays true to everything this series has ever promised. This is very funny, and a nice next step for cinema’s rowdiest rodeo clowns.

“Bad Grandpa” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.