They’re not just playing dumb
The ascendancy of Johnny Knoxville and the rest of MTV’s “Jackass” gang to the big screen shouldn’t come as all that surprising, especially given the original show’s popularity and the synergistic ethos of the cable network’s parent company, Paramount, which is releasing the feature-length film based on the series. Then, too, since Jim Carrey seems to have relinquished his party tricks to become an annual Academy Award hopeful and since uber-moron Adam Sandler has been elevated to art-house legitimacy in the critical favorite “Punch-Drunk Love,” somebody had to assume the mantle of the nation’s stupidest non-elected white guys. Hence, “Jackass the Movie,” a feature-length endeavor that’s every bit as disreputable and often as embarrassingly funny as the MTV program, only longer.
A string of pranks and gags, the movie follows the same premise as the show: ringleader Knoxville and his shock jocks -- Bam Margera, Chris Pontius, Steve-O, Dave England, Ryan Dunn, Jason “Wee Man” Acuna, Preston Lacy and Ehren McGhehey -- run around executing very stupid, at times hazardous, human tricks. On the show, the stunts have involved Tasers, pepper spray, a live goldfish (which was swallowed and regurgitated), attack dogs and enough excremental waggery and penis jokes to provoke curiosity about the group’s collective arrested growth, especially in what Freud called the anal and oral stages of development. For the most part, the stunts are overwhelmingly idiotic, although they occasionally do approach the great prankster tradition of upending everyday norms, as in the “Bloody Windshield” episode, in which the crew brought a bloodied automobile to a car wash, where it was promptly cleaned.
In the movie, the escapades range from the inspired (“Rent-a-Car Crash Derby”) to the silly (the Jackasses, including producer Spike Jonze, run amok while prosthetically made up to look like elderly men) to the disgusting (a Jackass tries out, literally, a display toilet in a store selling bathroom fixtures). When the comedy works, as in the rental-car crash interlude, it’s because the stunt taps into the rage, and the attendant sense of helplessness and frustration, that bubbles under the surface of so many of our ordinary exchanges.
In the derby episode, Knoxville politely listens to the rental-car agent as the man carefully drones on about the car’s existing dings, then takes the car to be outfitted for an intentional pile-up. What makes the stunt funny isn’t the sight of the car getting smashed (or the blowup dolls parked in the back seat), but the gleeful sense of liberation. Here, finally, is one guy who’s managed to escape the authoritarian bonds of the car-rental contract.
Upending our consensual reality is at the heart of the greatest pranks, whether the trickster is Marcel Duchamp or performance artist Joe Coleman, who in 1980 showed up at a 10-year high school reunion claiming to be someone who had died five years earlier, then set off explosives strapped to his chest. (He lived.)
In the years since, outrage has become the fulcrum of mainstream commercial culture, fodder for stuff like the BattleBots and reality-based shows such as “Fear Factor.” On “Fear Factor,” contestants are covered with live worms; in “Jackass the Movie,” a guy hangs from a tightrope above some alligators with a raw chicken hanging out of his underwear. Funny, yes, but no one here is pushing the edge of the envelope, either aesthetically or politically, the way Abbie Hoffman did when he was arrested in the late 1960s for trying to elevate the Pentagon in order to exorcise its demons.
In comparison, the “Jackass” guys come off as incredibly tame: At their best, they’re closer to the Three Stooges; at their most banal, they’re as original as the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing nude with socks on their penises. Can a collection of goofy antics shot in crummy-looking digital video and haphazardly strung together be called a movie? If it’s projected onto movie screens in movie theaters and comes with the imprimatur of a big movie studio, there’s no reason it shouldn’t, especially given the quality of the other brainless stuff out there. It’s a hoot, but it’s unclear why anyone would shell out money to watch a bunch of guys run around in their underwear puking up their guts and, in one explicitly visible instance, soiling their underwear.
Oh, yeah, did I mention that you don’t see any women doing this sort of thing?