That Broken Penguin in ‘Bad Grandpa’s’ World Ain’t Never Getting Fixed

[27 January 2014]

By Chris Robé

The Jackass franchise has been in rigor mortis for some time since its explosive debut on MTV in 2000. Already back in 2005 during the release of the Jackass box set, Preston Lacy complained during an interview, “This horse is dead, and we’re dragging it from the back of a truck. Let’s end it. Seriously.”

But one can’t entirely blame the Jackass ne’er do wells from trying to squeeze one more penny from their unexpected goldmine that erupted from a working-class world of jerry-rigged skate ramps, overflowing testosterone, and homoerotic pranks. Temporary fame and wealth aren’t often found at the bottom of working-class kids’ cheap amusements, so the Jackassers continue to resurrect their franchise as much as possible until drained of its very last drop of profitability and life.

The original appeal of the series derived in part from the surprisingly engaging community and ingenuity that wove together their seemingly mindless pranks. Although not all the members of the series considered each other friends, they nonetheless shared similar impulses to shock one another and those around them, to violently repel the boredom and resignation that often defines working-class life, and to expose the hypocrisy and cruelty that normally dictates middle-class norms. Their juvenile attitude translated into the show’s low-fi aesthetic as cheap video cameras ineptly attempted to capture their antics, producing a fumbling, blurry vision of an underground society that opposed normalcy, predictability, and adulthood.

The series came like a blast of fresh air as it dramatically contrasted against most of the hyper-produced, stale television fare that plagued corporate airwaves at the time. It lay bare a youth culture not safely invented from the sanitized minds of adults for popular consumption, but instead came thrashing from the spirits and energy of actual young people who remained mostly oblivious about demographics, ratings, and market-shares.

But as the Jackass franchise continued, its community fractured as the participants matured, their interests changed, and their bodies aged. Although its members would temporarily reunite to churn out another film or special, they no longer shared the intimacy they once had with each other and the camaraderie often seemed forced or altogether lacking. Furthermore, the famous death/suicide in 2011 of one of its members, Ryan Dunn, from having drunkenly driven his Porche through a guardrail at speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour (obliterating the car, Dunn, and his passenger), all too readily concedes the inevitable dangers that follow if one fails to come to terms with the precariousness of such a lifestyle. 

Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa, the most recent installment in the franchise, marginalizes the notion of community that its earlier incarnations celebrated. Like any failing sitcom or series, the film introduces a child to revitalize it. A latex-covered Knoxville plays an 80-year-old man named Irving who has to drive his grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), from Nebraska to North Carolina to place him in custody of the child’s abusive father, Chuck (Greg Harris), since the child’s mother, Kimmie (Georgine Cates), is in jail. As one can imagine, the storyline serves more as an alibi to hang various skits upon rather than a coherent narrative that allows for character development.

The film shares resonances with another recent road movie: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Payne’s film at times paints a poignant black-and-white vision of a post-industrial, recession-plagued America where younger generations struggle to simply survive while their elders become increasingly unmoored from reality. Struggling blue collar towns become ghostly images of a no longer existent past that gradually fades into their rust, rubble, and their inhabitants’ embittered memories.

Bad Grandpa also indirectly documents at times the ill-effects of the recent recession and a low-wage, service-based economy upon people. But instead of representing them as quietly resigned people who struggle to endure as Payne does, Bad Grandpa often exposes them as deeply angry and petty individuals, hunting for others to release their anger upon.

For example, in one scene Irving runs-over a giant promotional penguin at a diner with his Cadillac. A bald man in his mid-30s comes running out of the restaurant demanding that Irving has to fix the penguin, even though it is clearly irreparably destroyed. As Irving refuses to comply, the man grows increasingly irate, yelling, “You’re fixing that fucking penguin.”

Irving further antagonizes the guy by taking the penguin’s feet and saying, “That looks like the camel toe in your pants! Get it? I said you had a vagina.” Rather than actually attack Irving, though, the guy keeps repeating, “You’re gonna fix this fuckin’ penguin whether you like it or not.” The broken penguin stands in for larger frustrations for this individual. His inability to deal productively with Irving or simply let the event go suggests a deeper impasse.

Even worse, it intimates his desire to sublimate his greater frustrations with forces beyond his control by continuously yelling at a harmless old man. It’s as if he cannot stop himself. Finally, he has located a source for his immediate frustrations. He almost smiles when he insults Irving, “You’re a fuckin’ jerkoff, you know that?”

This pettiness and stasis arises again while Irving and Billy steal food in a supermarket. They pilfer white bread, ham, and mustard to make impromptu sandwiches within the aisles. When they are caught by a sale clerk, they both run outside to the car. But another woman, presumably a manager, cuts Irving off from his car by blocking the driver-side door. She grows increasingly irate as she yells, “Get your ass inside,” while Irving refuses to move.

At one moment, she hollers that he should pay for what he stole. Irving replies, “If I had money, I would pay for it.” She then responds semi-incoherently, “You had enough money to come in here and the audacity to try to steal from me.” This reveals an interesting moment where the manager personalizes the issue, Irving trying to steal from her, rather than acknowledging a deeper problem and need—he and the child are stealing food perhaps because they are hungry and don’t have the money to pay for it.

The prank reveals a certain cruelty on the manager’s part. She shouts earlier at Irving, “They ought to take that child away from you,” which he mockingly replies, “I wish to hell they would.” But her comment is interesting in that it suggests that it is more of a crime to steal food for your child than to not steal and let him starve. The stupidity of the confrontation—the level of anger the manager holds for such a petty theft—exposes the illogic and insanity that guides some people’s everyday lives who defend an anti-human system that rather see people starve than steal a loaf of bread and a package of meat for sustenance.

The moment’s humor is complex. In part, our enjoyment derives from seeing someone so cruel being coaxed into a frenzy by such a minor event. But even more importantly we also enjoy witnessing those who often remain at the “criminal” end of spectrum seizing control of the situation and illuminating the illogic and stupidity of those who are supposedly upstanding citizens.

Much like the Jackass series has done since its origin, Bad Grandpa reveals a world of inverted values where saints are sinners and thieves are saints. The pranks serve as scalpels used to peel back the polite veneer of society to disclose the utter cruelty and stupidity that festers beneath. Yet, at the same time, they also reveal a sense of humanity in the most unlikely of places.

Not coincidentally, Bad Grandpa’s most humane moment occurs in a biker bar. Irving drops off Billy to his abusive father while a local biker gang, Guardians of the Children, holds a party at the same location. As one heavily bearded, leather clad biker explains to Chuck, “We’re a biker organization and help abused kids, man.” Some of the bikers attempt to strike-up a conversation with Billy and offer him some free food. But as Chuck becomes increasingly abusive, such as denying Billy food since he considers him fat, the bikers grow more agitated until finally surrounding Chuck and placing him in an arm hold as Irving returns to take Billy with him.

In a particularly tense moment, the gang encloses Chuck. One man has his arm wedged under Chuck’s, applying near breaking-point pressure. He says in a calm voice, “You’re looking at a death angel right now.” (We learn during the extras that Greg Harris playing Chuck conceded that he was wrong at this point to prevent having his arm broken).

Underneath the leather and grease lurks a moral conscience that remained absent from the remainder of the film. Although probably dismissed as nothing more than outlaws, the Guardian of the Children become a moral beacon in a sea of crass materialism and opportunism. As Chuck complains that he wants Billy in order to get free money from child support, one of the Guardians chastises him, “He’s a hell of a lot more than money.”

The Guardians in many ways stand-in for the Jackass community that populated the earlier films and television series. Largely white, male, and working-class, the Guardians provide the antidote to the disease of hypocrisy, materialism, and abuse that metastasizes across America similar to how the Jackass boys provided humor and energy against the dull routine of adult, middle-class life.

Similar to its earlier incarnations, Bad Grandpa idealizes the masculine, blue-collar realm as the site where ingenuity, love, and humor prospers. Because it is largely quarantined to this section of the film, however, makes Bad Grandpa seem more cynical and angry than the earlier films since it is less celebratory of masculine camaraderie and more accusatory of everyday life. 

Following the same logic, the film’s most repulsive moment occurs during its nearly all-feminine realm of a beauty pageant. Irving dresses Billy in drag in order to win the prize money. As Billy participates as Lindsey, the prank exposes the underbelly of the pageant scene. Young girls are adorned in jewelry and imprisoned in heavy make-up and highly coiffed hair looking more like young hookers than beauty contestants.

The perversity of the moment is further stressed through the warped dialogue of mothers and daughters. One girl falsely claims that she participated in thousands of pageants and has won every one of them. Her adrenaline-induced mother further rationalizes such a pathological perspective: “It’s competitive. It’s a sport. Moms get into this competition, and if you’re going to do it and do it right you’ve got to be willing to be competitive.” As the mother attempts to explain herself, we watch her child continuously interrupt her, completely self-involved and bored with her mother’s words and existence.

Here where one would think children would be most protected—under the purview of their mothers— they are the most exploited. The mothers vicariously live through their daughters, placing their offspring in extremely cruel, pornographic, and demeaning conditions where the capitalist ethos of winning at all costs and judging people largely on outward beauty alone reigns supreme.

The main pleasure of the sequence arrives when Irving and Lindsey/Billy unearth the event’s pornographic undercurrents during Lindsey’s dance sequence. It begins with a seemingly innocent rendition of “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean”, an appropriately sentimental, outdated song that highlights the saccharine, superficial innocence that the pageant attempts to concoct. But halfway through the song, the prop boat falls on its side to become a stage and its mast a stripping pole as Lindsey flings off her sailor outfit to reveal a red lace bra and panties as Warrant’s “Sweet Cherry Pie” blasts over the sound system. Lindsey lewdly gyrates across the stage as the mothers sit in shock. Irving climbs on stage and flings dollars onto Lindsey to further emphasize the act’s sleaziness.

The dance actually serves as one of the more honest moments of the pageant. Rather than being hidden under the veneer of ruffled dresses and heavy make-up, the perversity of the pageant is made explicit. A cruel pleasure arises as we watch these mothers having to grapple with the pageant’s underbelly being exposed. The song is well-chosen, too, since its rather weak double-entendre of cherry pie for sex with virginal girls mirrors the similar weak cloak of the pageant itself justifying its pornographic and sadistic practices as wholesome American fun. The film’s all-too-easy reliance upon celebrating the masculine realm while denigrating the feminine one plays into a sexist binary that stretches throughout popular culture and its consumption that often relies upon a similar gendered dynamic.

The masculine community that defined the Jackass franchise withers to the relationship between Irving and Billy, which is mostly unremarkable. Yet a few unscripted moments arise between them that are genuinely funny. Irving asks Billy if he ever kissed a girl. Billy replies affirmatively and states that she was his girlfriend. Irving then asks, “How long did you date her for?” Billy replies, “A day,” which causes Knoxville to break character and cackle. He then responds, “That sounds like some of my relationships.”

For the most part, the film remains rather humorless. We watch good people placed in awkward situations such as witnessing having a coffin overturned with a body spilling out or having a wedding reception ruined by Irving falling on a cake. The pranks seem rote and sophomoric, lacking the humor, danger, and ingenuity found in the franchise’s earlier films and the television series. They serve as barometers for the aging of Knoxville who no longer has the endurance and a body limber enough to be attacked by a bull, shot out of a canon, and the like.

The film is caught between the mixed desires to create a narrative among developing characters and simple reliance upon the outrage of its pranks. In some ways, it is a middle-aged film where Knoxville and the producers attempt to hold onto their youth while simultaneously acknowledging its loss. Even its look has been drained of vitality. Replacing the earlier haphazard, youthful shooting style of the Jackass series is a predictable and “professional” look that has balanced frame composition accompanied by establishing shots and magic hour lighting.

The extras on the disc are largely unnecessary. They mostly explain the uneventful preparation for the film’s skits. There are a few deleted pranks on the extras that probably should have remained deleted. Overall, Bad Grandpa marks a distant memory for the vitality, the community, and the offensiveness that the Jackass series originally provided.

Although it occasionally has flashes of humor and insight, Bad Grandpa dodders through its narrative until it collapses wheezing by its end. But instead of being euthanized out of its misery, I suspect the Jackass franchise will get back up on its walker and comb through the aisles to see once more if a few more pennies cannot still be found.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178464-jackass-presents-bad-grandpa/