When Borat came out in 2006, it was one of those shifts in comedy that often heralds a new age and style of humour. Many waited to see what would follow. Audiences got Brüno… and that was it.
The reason Sacha Baron Cohen’s brand of prank comedy didn’t take off was because it’s very hard to do well. What separated Cohen’s movies from the comedy of The Tom Green Show or Just for Laughs! Gags were his talent, his daring ability to goad unwitting people, and his sheer devotion to the bit. Johnny Knoxville, though, is no Sacha Baron Cohen.
Knoxville, star of three Jackass movies and a TV show, has always been great at committing to a bit, but he doesn’t have much acting talent – he looks 80 here, but still sounds and acts 40 – which hurts the movie whenever it wastes time on its irrelevant plot.
Knoxville plays Irving, a salacious octogenarian whose wife has just passed away and who’s tasked with driving his eight-year-old grandson Billy (the remarkably funny Jackson Nicoll) across the country. Everywhere they stop, a pre-planned catastrophe of awkward embarrassment or graphic injury awaits. The hook of these scenes is that only Knoxville and Nicoll know they’re being filmed by hidden cameras. Everyone else reacts unaware they are in a movie.
The prank scenes provide the laughs of the movie, although far fewer than would be hoped for considering Knoxville’s history. (Many scenes just don’t go far enough in luring the pranked people into the movie. Knoxville’s character knocks over a string of bikers’ motorcycles and flees; Sacha Baron Cohen would’ve knocked them over and stuck around for the awkward confrontation.)
The real problems are the scenes connecting all the stops, during which Irving and Billy bond. Watching the prank scenes, the audience has a tacit understanding with the movie to enjoy knowing that Irving is really Knoxville while the others onscreen don’t. Once it’s just him and Billy, though, Knoxville doesn’t drop the deception or even give a knowing look to the audience, which feels like a belittling betrayal of Bad Grandpa‘s agreement between movie and viewer.
Bad Grandpa wants to function both as a Borat-style prank movie and as an immature, road trip comedy but it can’t have it both ways and doesn’t commit enough to either one. The bonding scenes seem like a prank on the audience and the prank scenes on others are too few and too mild. Johnny Knoxville should’ve just made Jackass 4.