Saturday, October 26, 2013

Old, Tired, Mean: BAD GRANDPA

When Amy Poehler was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show earlier this week, she talked about her disdain for pranks. Ellen showed her several YouTube videos of people going to elaborate lengths scaring friends and family. After each one, the camera would cut back to Poehler, brow furrowed, mouth drawn into an exaggerated frown. “How about that one?” Ellen would ask. “Nope,” Poehler would grunt. I’m glad she did that, not just because it was a funny bit, but also because it helped me know what my face probably looked like for most of Bad Grandpa. It’s a loosely plotted movie that is wall-to-wall hidden-camera pranks, most of them bizarre, upsetting, or filthy behavior that happens in the vicinity of strangers. As I watched, I felt my face scrunch up for so long I was nearly worried it would stay that way. As the antics played out across the screen, I spent my time debating logistics – how did they film this? – and worrying about the well-being of the innocent bystanders.

These are no Candid Camera good-natured goofs. The movie comes from star Johnny Knoxville and director Jeff Tremaine, the pranksters behind the Jackass show and movies in which a team of like-minded buddies would egg each other on into masochistic pranks involving shock gross out squirminess and threats of bodily harm, all for our ostensible amusement. Here, the humor comes from staging dangerous and crude stunts in front of the general public. It’s no longer masochism; it’s mean-spirited. Take, for instance, an early scene in which Knoxville, who spends the entire movie in convincing old-age makeup playing the Bad Grandpa of the title, hosts an estate sale. He sits down on an adjustable bed and goads a middle-aged woman, who thinks she’s just a customer at an average sale, into testing the bed’s buttons. It predictably goes haywire, snapping upright from both ends and trapping Knoxville inside. The camera lingers on the trembling woman in glee as Knoxville extricates himself. Relishing the poor woman’s fright isn’t funny. It’s just cruel.

The plot, such as it is, involves the Bad Grandpa on a road trip to take his eight-year-old grandson (Jackson Nicoll) to the boy’s dad. It’s mainly an excuse to stage moments like shoplifting from a convenience store, which culminates in the manager yelling at them in the parking lot, saying quite rightly that the boy should be taken away from him. Another gag involves a funeral with invited strangers, thinking they’re helping a poor old man’s grief, witnessing the body (fake, of course, but awfully real looking) falling out of the casket, after which Knoxville proceeds to dance with it while angrily insisting the congregation sing a hymn. Other gags include a malfunctioning mechanical contraption launching the Bad Grandpa through a plate glass window, the old man pushed in a shopping cart up to a drive-thru window, a bout of explosive diarrhea that splatters a diner wall, and a crashed beauty pageant featuring a risqué drag performance by the little boy. Bystanders are often more perplexed and weirded out than anything else, especially when, say, Knoxville takes his old man character into a male strip club and tries to muscle his way on stage.

Compare the slack, mean pranks here to Sacha Baron Cohen’s not unproblematic overrated Borat and underrated Bruno. There Cohen tends to go after satirical targets with his hidden-camera improv stunts. He’s hilarious and cringe-worthy at once, precisely because it’s calibrated to tweak racist, xenophobic, and homophobic undercurrents, blowing past the limits of propriety to make a point. When he gets a group of people to sing his fake folk song “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” it’s as upsetting and unnerving as it is hilarious for the bias he unearths. When he throws a cage match in the deep south and suddenly begins making out with his opponent mid-bout, the howls of protest from the drunken crowd give the whole thing an edge of danger and upheaval for the ultimate benefit of all involved, if for nothing else than the societal observation it provokes. When Bad Grandpa goes to a bingo game, drinks the ink out of his markers, pours lime juice down his pants, and aggressively flirts with all the ladies around him, it’s ultimately pointless. I felt bad for those women. They’re the butt of the joke in a scenario that exists only to have us laugh at their discomfort.

I make Bad Grandpa sound like an unendurable experience. I’ve no doubt that for many it would be. For me it could have been and nearly was, but I must confess to laughing right out loud maybe three times, even though all those best jokes are lifted from Little Miss Sunshine and Borat. And there’s some genuine camaraderie between Knoxville and Nicoll that generates a few freestanding moments of mild entertainment when the two characters simply scamper around pulling pranks on each other. Maybe they work well together because they’re on a similar level of juvenile dumbness, a mix of fearless energy and unchecked mischievousness. It’s too bad the movie’s so sour it can’t even capitalize on their chemistry for the sappy grandfather-grandson bonding conclusion it so desperately tries to pull off. For me the biggest laugh comes not from any of the elaborate dangerous or crude stunts the production pulls, but from a comment a woman on the street directs towards the boy when confronted with the pair: “I feel like I should take your picture and see if you’re on a milk carton somewhere.” Otherwise the movie kept waving its pranks in my face asking, “How about that one?” To which I could only reply, “Nope.”

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