IN THE PROLOGUE to his ribald and comic tale, contained in Geoffrey Chaucer’s brilliant fourteenth-century poem Canterbury Tales, the Reeve observes of “olde men” that
Till we be rotten, can we not be ripe.
We hop away while that the world will pipe.
For in our will there sticketh aye a nail,
To have an hoary head and a green tail.
Or to phrase it another way – as indeed it is phrased elsewhere in the poem – though there be snow on the chimney, there is fire down below.
The latest instalment of the Jackass franchise is in this detail reminiscent of Chaucer’s singular satire upon the hypocrisies and pretensions of his day. Irving Zisman, played by Dickhouse Productions founder Johnny Knoxville, is an eighty-six year-old pervert obsessed with ‘pootang’ and with an especial fondness of ‘black bush.’ This, and his sudden and unwelcomed inheritance of the cock-block Billy (or is it Bob? – on this point Grandpa Zisman is confused), establishes the premise of the film, directed and produced, respectively, by Jackass regulars Jeff Tremaine and Spike Jonze.
By now you’ve figured out, if you didn’t already know, that Bad Grandpa is rude and juvenile. Much of the humour of this movie – and the same is true of Dickhouse’s work in general – is bawdy and emphatically low-brow: genitalia, farting and scatology make frequent appearances. The set-up is simple. Cameras are hidden, and Knoxville-as-Zisman walks into a scene with his grandson Billy, played solidly by the adorable Jackson Nicollby. Something absurd or transgressive or disgusting or explosive, and often all four together, follows. The unwitting spectators to this scene react, and the result is captured on film. When the scene has run its course, they are let in on the joke off-camera.
“You can get away with almost anything,” says Zisman to Billy. “You just have to try.” This is the very proposition Bad Grandpa substantiates. Over and again Knoxville’s and Nicollby’s obscene stunts push the buttons of strangers who are revealed to be patient, forgiving and accommodating – at times perhaps too much so. Zisman comes uncomfortably close to successfully shipping Billy in a cardboard box. A social worker graciously provides her help in easing his passing-off of Billy to a clearly unfit father. This heedless grandpa careens his boat of a car into the successive Welcome signs of mid-western and southern communities, encountering along the way (with some exceptions) uniform goodwill, politeness and hospitality.
Like Sacha Baron Cohen, Knoxville tests the limits of social norms and taboos. He shits on the wall of a public restaurant and takes off his pants in a bar, exposing his dangling prosthetic scrotum. He tests and prods our attitudes about aging, decay, sex, bodies and bodily functions, death and desire – the very stuff of which our species is made but so often pretends not to be. As any six year-old knows, but as many sixty year-olds can no longer admit, the human body is absurd. Somewhere along the way so many of us learn to be po-faced and repressed, if not hypocritical, where the facts of our humanity are concerned – and it is from this that the power and usefulness of the fool and jester and satirist, as well as of the jackass, derives.
Unlike Cohen, however, Knoxville is not trying to make a political or cultural ‘point.’ He is not trying to expose papered-over meanness, xenophobia or anti-Semitism. (And even if he were, like Cohen what he often in fact exposes is the ordinary decency of people.) His movies are funny — very funny, in my opinion — because the given facts of our material existence are in many respects funny. No labouring of the point is required. For reasons that have been amply considered, and across centuries, the body is both an object of attraction and of repulsion, in roughly equal measure. It is both beautiful and ill-conceived, magnificent and ridiculous. As early as Sophocles, satirical art was depicting to great effect the relationship of war, human society, politics, sex and priapism. The lesson of this comedic tradition is that we do not have bodies, we are bodies. Bad Grandpa is Knoxville’s latest movie of the body, in every respect naked and unashamed.