Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 January 2014

Bad Grandparents: August Osage County and Jackass

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and August: Osage County have three Oscar nominations between them. In addition to both being nominated for the United States' most prestigious film award, these films also have other things in common:

Bizarre Titles with Strangely Placed Colons. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is how everyone is referring to this film. I think Bad Grandpa is good enough, actually, plus that's how Johnny Knoxville always refers to it on Twitter. My bet is that people who loved the television show Jackass want the Jackass in the title in order to remind people about the hilarity in which they are about to partake; people who thought Jackass was stupid want the Jackass in there to remind people that the movie they're about to watch is somehow not a real narrative film.

But, look: August: Osage County is also a ridiculous title. I mean, that colon should probably be a comma, right? But worse than that, what on earth does this title describe? Where and when we are, you might answer. And you'd be right. And that's all good and well for a play that is about life on the plains, a giant house that eats up people's lives and vitriolically spits them out. But it isn't such a great title for a film that categorized itself as a "comedy" for the purposes of the Golden Globe Awards and whose trailer simply contained the most hilarious parts of a rather funny film.
Let's be honest, August: Osage County is a terrible title for a comedy.

Evil Grandparents and Old-Age Makeup. Johnny Knoxville's misbehaving grandpa, Irving Zisman is horrible. He drinks with his grandson, he pulls down his pants at male strip clubs, he dumps his dead wife's corpse into the trunk of his car. He hits on every woman he meets. All of this is a bit in Bad Grandpa. The cameras are watching real people interact with the antics of a grandson and grandfather who do hilariously shocking things and then wait for passersby to be surprised. Would you help a man move his wife's dead body into the trunk? Would you stop a grandfather who is drinking beers with his grandson at the park?  

Ms. Nicholson, Ms. Streep & Ms. Martindale
August: Osage County's evil matriarch Vi is just as horrible in the film as she was in the play, and Meryl Streep plays her beautifully (contrary to what the awful trailers might have you believe). Actually, I thought the acting in August was great across the board, particularly by the women – Julianne Nicholson, Julia Roberts, and Margo Martindale are all excellent. Martindale is more sensitive and beautiful than I've ever seen her: it is a deeply sad performance. The same goes for Roberts: she is strong and terrifying and completely messed up. It is really awesome (lead) work.

The makeup for these two old people is not really comparable, however. Bad Grandpa's is so fantastically good that it doesn't need film lighting or a camera to fool people. This is makeup that is fooling regular people on a sunny day in Tennessee. It is excellent work.

Mr. Knoxville and Mr. Nicoll
Terrible Direction. While Bad Grandpa mostly works – the film is a serious of pranks played on unsuspecting regular people who don't know they're about to be in a movie – these bits are connected by sequences in which the grandpa (Knoxville) and the grandson (Jackson Nicoll) ride in a car together and sort of pretend that they are in a real movie about a grandad and his grandson. This makes no sense, of course, because we know that they are both in on the joke. We don't believe that either one of them believes in this grandpa/grandson fiction. I was hoping for something a little more meta connecting the bits: perhaps a series of sequences where Knoxville explained to the young actor what normally happens in these kind of buddy-road movies. Or something. Anything but pretense.

Like Grandpa's director Jeff Tremaine, August's director John Wells (who also directed the terrible adaptation of Tracy Letts' Killer Joe) is mostly a television director. And it shows. August: Osage County was a play about a house and a family. The play is filled with simultaneous scenes and a big family-style mise en scène, like the portions at Buca Di Beppo. But the film doesn't embrace this idea at all. Not only does Wells not focus on the house as an important plot-point or character motivation (no shots of empty rooms or childhood bedrooms or kitchens or even many of the outside of the house), the film can't find focus. Whose story is this? August is fundamentally confused about this question. This is not a question in the play: it's a play about a house. But Wells doesn't make this a movie about a house, and instead insists on following someone's story. But whose? He never decides.

In fact, while August: Osage County is not as bad as the poster to the right would have us believe, it is still a mess of a movie. This is a stagey script elevated by excellent acting. All of the highlights of Tracy Letts's play (a hybrid of Sam Shepard's Buried Child and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night) are still there, but they don't pack the punch they do in the play. They seem diffused by having too many celebrities in a single room. And Letts (who made his own play into a screenplay) hasn't cut the play enough. The play's theatrically intriguing prologue sequence, which involves the patriarch of the family, is inexplicably retained for the film, a decision which my companions who hadn't read the play found very confusing. The plot still works, of course – incest, betrayal, lots of furious family drama – particularly when the acting is this good, but the direction is noticeably terrible, and the film is frustrating throughout for its misplaced perspectives, and almost total lack of a point of view.

Bad Grandpa s also a big ol' nasty mess, and it will probably give you exactly what you expect. In truth, it gave me much more than I was expecting. This movie is hilarious. I did the movie up right and went with three straight guys. You should probably also have a beer or two before going. But if you're ready to laugh, Bad Grandpa will not disappoint. The bits are hilarious – even the tired ones. And my companions and I found ourselves anticipating with relish the ridiculous stuff they were going to do. Oh no, oh my lord, no way, we would say to one another, and then slap each other and laugh hysterically. At more than one point the laughter actually took over and we were all a little out of control. This is totally unbridled absurdity at its most shameless.