Move over, Borat. There's a new class clown valedictorian.
Rude, wrong and laugh-till-you-snort funny, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (*** out of four, rated R, opens nationwide Friday) not only stands as the best installment (by bounds) of Johnny Knoxville's hidden-camera franchise; it's one of the sharpest comedies of the year.
Part feature, part stand-up road act, Grandpa tamps down the raunch of the MTV series to find something unexpected: a little story, a lot of heart and a treasure of an 8-year-old actor.
Like Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen, Knoxville has become too recognizable for his candid cameras to capture the public unawares now. So he undergoes a prosthetic makeover to become 86-year-old Irving Zisman, a crotchety geezer obsessed with crotches - his own and the unsuspecting public foils he can't help but harangue.
By itself, the joke would barely support a 22-minute Jackass TV episode. But longtime Jackass director Jeff Tremaine, working with a script co-written by auteur filmmaker Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), takes a daring approach to the public gags, overlaying them with the template of a plot.
As we learn through Grandpa's account to horrified passersby, the old man is ready to party like it's 1899 after the death of his henpecking wife Ellie (Catherine Keener). Problem is, Irving's daughter is headed to jail for drugs, forcing him to take a cross-country trip to drop 8-year-old Billy (Jackson Nicoll) off with his ne'er-do-well toker son-in-law, Chuck (Zia Harris). That still could be fodder for a collection of random sketches, the format of the previous three Jackass films. Yet Knoxville and Nicoll stay so in character throughout Grandpa that, by film's end, our heroes have mustered some dramatic tension.
Of course, laughs still rule Knoxville's world, and he finds doozies here, beginning with his wife's memorial service before a handful of funeral home employees and onlookers suckered into the program.
As you'd expect, Grandpa can't help but stir trouble, leading to the casket's collapse. What you might not expect is Knoxville's crass charm in convincing attendees to join in a rousing chorus of I've Got the Joy Joy Joy Joy - while the corpse rests on the floor. If Candid Camera creator Allen Funt was TV's practical joke king, Knoxville has become cinema's. He sees humor not in the punchline, but the reaction to it.
And what reactions he gets. While 2006's Borat skewered U.S. racism and xenophobia, Grandpa takes a broader look at Americans, for better or worse. Knoxville finds the usual cadre of huckleberries: employees at a mail center debating whether it's legal to ship a child cross-country; a 45-year-old muscle-bound dimwit who threatens to "tune up" a man he thinks is twice his age; beauty show contestant parents who could be extras from Little Miss Sunshine.
Yet it's Grandpa's heartwarming scenes that make it shine: Strangers who berate Grandpa for giving the kid a six-pack for breakfast, dropping f-bombs in front of the boy and leaving a child downtown while he hits the strip clubs. As Billy, Nicoll is terrific, remaining doe-eyed (even while Knoxville cracks up) as he queries grown-ups about strippers or why his mom's breath smells like crack cocaine. Nicoll, who made his debut as Christian Bale's son in The Fighter, is comedic gold.
Still, the movie's best moment is sincere, not snarky. Near the finale, as the actors converge on a seedy bar for the custody handoff, we meet Guardians of the Children, a real biker gang dedicated to assisting abused youths. Knoxville clearly meant to rile the gang, but he could not have expected the group to not only feed the kid, but threaten the boy's miscreant father that, if he harmed the boy, he'd be facing "the angel of death."
Not all the comedy works. Grandpa's lecherous advances to women are funny when they put Knoxville in his place, but not when they bristle uncomfortably. Knoxville remains in love with body parts and scatological humor.
But the movie is having so much fun the trespasses are forgivable, and the final credits - featuring a grinning Knoxville pointing out the hidden cameras to his dupes - capture a kid with one hand in the cookie jar and the other with a hand buzzer. Smile. You're on grandpa's prank list.