Harmony Korine’s assaultive 2009 film “Trash Humpers,” which is about a gang of old people who commit the title act along with many other indignities, offended some critics, amused others, and went straight to DVD. But somewhere in that crude, transgressive movie lay the makings of a crude, R-rated, gross-out comedy.
Director Jeff Tremaine, comedian Johnny Knoxville, and other members of the team behind the MTV show “Jackass” and its three movie incarnations have taken Korine’s basic concept, minus the nihilism, and added pratfalls, scatological stunts, a touch of sentimentality, and the unwitting participation of innocent bystanders shot with hidden cameras. Though at times it grows predictable and more inane than outrageous, “Bad Grandpa” gets more than its share of cheap laughs.
Irving Zisman, a dirty old man first introduced on the TV show and played here by Knoxville in surprisingly convincing octogenarian makeup, may not hump trash, but he does perform an indecent act on a soft drink machine. As clueless real-life onlookers respond with incredulity, horror, and amusement, he finds himself in a painful situation that rivals the franks and beans scene in “There’s Something About Mary.”
The death of Zisman’s wife and his newfound bachelorhood have inspired this polymorphous behavior, but his freedom is short-lived. His daughter has been put in prison and she has entrusted him to drive his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) cross-country to the boy’s father, in North Carolina. This burden proves to be a blessing, however, both for Zisman and the movie. It would have been a long ride without Billy on board — he not only provides the film with a semblance of plot but also with one of the great child performances of the year. Nicoll combines cherubic innocence, puerile humor, a crafty wit, and uncanny timing — plus a knack for drag in a scene that is wrong for so many reasons, yet still pulls off a hilarious parody of “Little Miss Sunshine.”
“Sunshine” is just one of many films that “Grandpa” calls to mind, from Chaplin’s “The Kid” to “Bad Santa” to just about every movie by the Farrelly brothers. It also draws heavily on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” (2006) and suffers by the comparison. “Borat” always buzzes with the potential for genuine danger and transgression; but with “Grandpa,” you just know it’s all going to end with wacky outtakes in which — like Allen Funt on “Candid Camera” — Knoxville informs the participants of the hoax and everyone has a good laugh. Also “Borat” doesn’t shrink from taking on figures like Bob Barr and Alan Keyes, whereas “Grandpa” targets working stiffs with missing teeth and dead-end lives, with the only political presence being a Rand Paul for president campaign sign.
It’s the kind of outrageous comedy that you might even take your folks to, though probably not your kids. Say what you will about Harmony Korine and his demented geriatrics, at least they take their trash seriously.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.