Phil Johnston is not easily offended.
The writer of “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Cedar Rapids,” who’s working with Sacha Baron Cohen on a spy comedy that’s in development, is a dear friend of ours from our days in Brooklyn over a decade ago. One of the many things we love about him is that he seems like such a mild-mannered, decent-hearted Midwesterner — and genuinely, he is — but as my husband likes to say, he’s also a twisted bastard.
So I knew he’d be the perfect person to bring along with me to see “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” in which Johnny Knoxville dresses up as an inappropriate octogenarian who messes with people while on a road trip with his grandson. Phil and I attended a screening at The Grove, followed by beer (for him), wine (for me) and nachos (for both of us) at nearby Mixology. The wittiest and most insightful of our observations on the movie, opening Friday, are below.
CL: So you had not seen any of the “Jackass” films previously.
PJ: I had not seen any of them, no.
CL: Did you feel lost?
PJ: (laughs) Yes, the complicated plot and intricate characterizations left me flummoxed. I kinda think you know what you’re getting with his brand, right? It was, I thought, very funny. The minute, though, that they got into whatever limited plot there was I was like, OK, what’s next?
CL: I kinda strangely admire the intention, the ambition, to have some more structure, to have an actual plot of some sort, versus: Here’s a raunchy bit, here’s a raunchy bit.
PJ: And unlike Adam Sandler movies which try to shoehorn some bullshit emotion into the movie, this weirdly had actual emotion at times. I didn’t fully buy it but somehow I appreciated their intentions more. It didn’t feel as manipulative — maybe because it was so half-assedly done. But I was rooting for them to end up together, even though it’s inevitable.
CL: It didn’t go totally soft and gooey. There’s some sentiment but they’re still crass people.
PJ: Every time, when they went into the soft and gooey, they would end it with a hard joke. That scene in the restaurant was probably the worst and most treacly of all the emotional scenes but then ends — to me — with the best joke, when he shits on the wall. (laughs)
CL: See, is that the best joke? To me, that’s the worst.
PJ: (still laughing) I mean it’s not, it’s a stupid joke. It’s a useless joke. But I am a sucker for shit and dick jokes.
CL: It’s a guy thing, isn’t it?
PJ: Yeah. The huge, dangly balls and the shit on the wall. … Anyway, the times when they weren’t in public it felt very weird when they were acting together. Without the audience, without the dupes, it becomes almost surreal.
CL: The kid (Jackson Nicoll) is great, though. His timing is excellent.
PJ: He was really funny. He reminded me of the kid in “Bad Santa,” sort of, but with much better timing.
CL: We touched on this a bit in the lobby: the uncomfortableness of making fun of the lowest common denominator, and does that seem like low-hanging fruit? Does that seem cruel?
PJ: Kind of, except in this case there was no satire, there was no political message that accompanied it.
CL: Like in “Borat.”
PJ: Like in “Borat,” or “Bruno” to a lesser extent. You can look at those and go: OK, they’re shining a light on a segment of our society that is bigoted or stupid, and in their stupidity, causing all kinds of problems in the world. This is just dumb for dumb’s sake.
CL: People are gullible.
PJ: People are gullible, and watching people react. It’s very much “Candid Camera.”
CL: And it works every time.
PJ: It does.
CL: You know the reaction’s coming and it’s still funny.
PJ: It’s funny. And I think because in the end credits they reveal what they were doing, it sort of excuses it. Also somehow it doesn’t feel mean-spirited to me. Maybe because it was a grandfather-grandson story at its core, it didn’t offend me. I didn’t think it was mean, did you?
CL: No, but I mean, in the bingo parlor: You’ve got these heavyset, uneducated, toothless people hoping to win big, and they’ve got their troll-doll daubers and all that. But they seem to be having fun with him quite often — they seem to be enjoying joking around with him — so that takes a bit of the edge off the meanness. The only time in all the scenarios where there was a glimmer of the kind of social satire that “Borat” aims for was in the little-kid pageant at the end, and just the grossness of that. But again, as we were saying: low-hanging fruit. “Toddlers & Tiaras” has been on for a while — these people are horrible, we all know that.
PJ: I’m curious as to how you approach something like this because it’s barely a movie. This is the same medium and the same ratings system, ostensibly, as “Gravity.” I was entertained and that’s kind of all movies are supposed to do, I guess. I laughed more than I’ve done in almost anything I’ve seen lately. I’m not gonna think about it tomorrow, but that’s all right.
CL: So how do I assess it? I guess I look at it like I look at all movies in that, is it achieving what it sets out to do? And for the most part, it is. With these kinds of movies — any kind of sketch comedy, any kind of “Jackass” movie — it’s going to be hit and miss. And the question is: Is it shocking you? Is it making you laugh? And for the most part, it did. When it’s really firing on all cylinders, it’s great.
PJ: I admire the tone of this because it never varies. It knows what it is and, for the most part, it does it well.
CL: So can Johnny Knoxville act?
PJ: I don’t know. Maybe.
CL: He kind of stayed in character for the most part. But a lot of times when he’s driving with the kid and just sort of yammering, I had the sense that that’s what a road trip with Johnny Knoxville would be like. … I interviewed Johnny Knoxville, it had to have been about eight years ago at this point — whenever the “Dukes of Hazzard” movie came out. And there was all this talk back then about how he could be a serious actor. I interviewed a lot of people, including John Waters, who had worked with him and said there is definitely something more to him. And then that element of his career just kind of petered out. There were a couple of attempts at more serious drama that didn’t really go over so well. Now here he is, all this time later, back to his roots with the gross-out jokes and shocking people — it’s like he knows where his bread and butter is. He likes working with his friends.
PJ: I thought he was pretty natural in that character and pretty consistent. I believed it. It was good makeup.
CL: He’s about our age, acting twice as old.
PJ: Did he seem like a lovable guy? Or was it too much, like, him doing his press thing?
CL: I mean, it’s hard to know. With him, his shtick is who he is. He even said to me that people walk up to him in bars and have certain expectations that they can fuck with him. … He was a polite, sweet Southern guy.
PJ: Now I want to look at some of the old stuff — wait, I don’t actually.
PJ: Like, I’ve had enough. Like that was just enough. But I kinda liked it.