As Johnny Knoxville Criticism Lays Dying
I went to Bad Grandpa, the fourth Johnny Knoxville “Jackass” movie because its trailer featured the funniest thing I’ve seen in a movie theater all year: As Billy (played by Jackson Nicoll, a shockingly talented child comedian) rips off his Shirley Temple outfit at a children’s beauty contest, to instead pole dance to “Cherry Pie,” Knoxville’s Irving Zisman walks onto the stage to throw dollar bills at his grandson. The moment perfectly critiques the absurd sexualization of little girls at the bastions of child abuse celebrated on horrifying reality television shows such as “Toddlers and Tiaras.”
However, something remarkable happens in Bad Grandpa, because it needs to take the mockumentary premise of the Jackass television show and convert it into feature-length narrative film. Bad Grandpa, shockingly, unexpectedly, and brilliantly, reconstructs William Faulkner’s 1930 stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, As I Lay Dying. In fact, Bad Grandpa is a far better film than James Franco’s recent adaptation of the previously un-filmed, and thought un-film-able novel.
To structure the plot, Knoxville and director Jeff Tremaine force Irving to confront the death of his wife, Ellie. He cons some movers into throwing his wife’s body into the trunk of his car. Irving is then forced to drive his eight-year-old grandson to the boy’s father in Raleigh, North Carolina from Nebraska because the boy’s mother is being sent to jail. The journey narrative reconstructs Faulkner’s novel, about the Bundren family, who journey from the countryside to Jefferson, Mississippi to bury their dead matriarch, Addie.
I am well aware that using As I Lay Dying as a reading frame for Bad Grandpa assaults all that we think we know about great literature and crass cinema. However, we have overvalued Faulkner and undervalued Knoxville. In fact, if you doubt this, go look up why Faulkner was named “old corncob” while drunk in Hollywood. Knoxville and Faulkner are fellow artistic travelers, using the journey narrative to expose the infirmities of Americans, both comedic and tragic.
Furthermore, both artists share a suspicion of the presumed goodness of human behavior. If anything, Knoxville’s method gives us just a glimmer of hope that people are not as awful as Faulkner believes they are. When Irving leaves his grandson with his ne’er-do-well father, bikers step in to protect the boy. During the end credits, we see Knoxville revealing the film’s ruse in order to thank the gang members for being so kind to the boy, such humanity being in short supply during the rest of the film (when people on the street regularly and inconceivably leave a small child to fend for himself, without adult supervision). For Faulkner’s part, the wretched journey to bury Addie leaves her pregnant daughter sexually abused, her son Darl in a mental institution, and the father, Anse exposed as only traveling to Jefferson to get new teeth and a new wife, using the burial of his wife as mere pretense.
Toward the end of Bad Grandpa, Irving finally takes the corpse of his wife out of the trunk of the car and dumps her off of a bridge. He says to Billy that this is what she wanted, having repeatedly said, “After I die, just dump me in the river, for all I care.” This, the film’ second and more informal funeral, is a touching moment, taking place after it has become clear that Irving’s love for Billy has trumped his feigned selfishness.
The funeral concludes with Irving making good on his promise to take Billy fishing. The two cast their lines into the river which now serves as Ellie’s final resting place, enjoying one of the most tranquil moments of the film. The sequence is a stunning deconstruction of As I Lay Dying. In the novel’s shortest chapter, Addie’s youngest son, Vardaman, too immature to understand his mother’s death, humorously declares, “My mother is a fish.” Since his mother died at the same time as he caught a fish, his young brain conflates the two.
This fishing connection between Knoxville and Faulkner provides the terrain through which to compare the two texts. The childhood of 2013 no longer provides the cognitive protection it did for Faulkner’s time: Unlike Vardaman, Billy is, if anything, the better prankster, and more adult, than Knoxville himself. And yet, Irving, despite his reprehensible behavior (he goes to a male strip club to prey upon the aroused women who frequent the establishment), is a far more caring person than Faulkner’s diabolical Anse, who literally marries another woman before his wife is cold in the ground.
Despite prevalent and unrelentingly simple-minded moral criticism, American civilization is richer because of artists like Faulkner and Knoxville, brutally stigmatized as they created their art. And yet, if we know how to read it, we can appreciate the humanistic, critical yet life-affirming work of Jackass, and not let it flounder for decades, as was done to Faulkner almost a century before. Let’s celebrate our artists while they are at the height of their talent, not after they are, like Ellie and Addie, long since cold in the ground.
– Walter Metz