[22 September 2006]
Jackass: the movie attempts to answer an age-old question: what happens when someone gives a group of 20-something nutcases enough money to do pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want? The film is a fascinating combination of amusing, if sometimes gross and almost always painful, male bonding and excessive, unfunny hedonism enacted at expense of innocent bystanders.
The nutcases gained cult status with the release of their CKY series. The popularity of these DIY movies began in the skater community and then seeped into the consciousness of a wider range of teenagers. Jackass, the MTV show that paired the Pennsylvania crew responsible for CKY with the charismatic Johnny Knoxville, became a smash hit. Quickly, television’s craziest gang also became its coolest, the kind of guys that males between 13 and 28 wanted to hang with.
The obvious next step was to make a film that pulled out the stops on the stunts. Just so, jackass: the movie begins with the principals dressed in costume, riding down a hill in a shopping cart, punching and beating each other while a giraffe runs by and cannons shoot dirt, concrete, and rocks at them. But the appeal of Jackass isn’t the insane stunts or the gross-out tactics. It’s the display of male bonding in its purest form. Like many bonding rituals, it is premised on competition: the camaraderie here shows a prevailing philosophy of one-upsmanship. The Jackass guys bust each other’s balls by literally busting each other’s balls. If the movie is to be believed, everything is made funnier by a swift kick to the junk.
But while abuse among friends might be fine, too many times jackass: the movie crosses over into abuse of others. In the second skit, Knoxville rents a car, declines the insurance and then destroys it in a demolition derby. He returns to the agency and demands they help him pay for the car, saying, “I black out when I drink,” as a reason they should acquiesce. Finally, he grabs the blow-up doll in the car and runs away, yelling, “F-U” at the perplexed and annoyed salesman. There’s nothing funny about this. Knoxville’s just being an asshole.
In fact, most of jackass: the movie demonstrates the danger of “making it.” The difference between CKY and Jackass as concepts has to do with money. The crew on the former had none, and so they had to be creative. Whether it was crashing cars or shopping carts, they functioned on an “anything you can do, I can do better/bigger/more painful” platform. Subsequently, Jackass on MTV succeeded because the group combined this ideal with increased financial backing and the access it provided to create something that was bigger and better, but rarely mean simply for the hell of it.
Yet in jackass: the movie, the group’s collective head is too large. After years of adoration, this is understandable, but also regrettable. When they run into a bowling alley and skateboard down the lanes, destroying the wax job in the process, no one stops them. Instead, they are met with resounding cheers. Becoming a folk hero is great for getting laid and feeling good about yourself, but makes it tough to recognize the social boundaries, especially when the very reason you’ve become successful is by pushing them. The DVD’s outtakes demonstrate how hard the crew tried to make their bigger-budgeted risk-taking funny. Rarely did skits go as planned, and watching Knoxville and the rest laugh the failures off and adjust is frequently delightful.
Still, they had institutional backing and they knew it. If they got in trouble, MTV would bail them out, hire a slew of lawyers, and get their cash cows off the hook. How boring and mainstream is that? Such dullness is reflected in the commentary track. You’d think that the only thing better than watching the crew mess themselves up would be listening to them laugh about it after the fact. BUt even though it includes a few unforgettable explanations, too often, homophobic jokes and irrelevant discussions trump explanatory observations. As the muscle stimulator scene plays in the background, Steve-O explains that “[Dave England’s] one ball is, like, bigger than his wiener.” Gee, thanks for that insight. After 15 minutes, listening becomes an exercise in patience.
A second track by Knoxville, director Jeff Tremaine and cinematographer Dimitry Elyashkevich is marginally better, but offers no insight into the skits or even much witty banter. During the rental car skit, Knoxville explains how the camera pack was taped around his waist and he “couldn’t look more shady.” But then the three go on a tangent about music being played in the background, which sounds more like a PR pitch for the band than anything else.
If the commentary lacks inspiration, jackass: the movie is, thankfully, often buoyed by moments that recall the good old days of one-upsmanship. In one such scene, the guys sit around a hotel room, sticking muscle stimulators on increasingly vulnerable body parts until the inevitable challenges comes to put it on “the gootch” (which Knoxville gleefully describes as the area between “the ball sack and the anus”). Pontius accepts and the room devolves into laughter while he writhes in pain. In another segment, after watching his friends receive paper cuts between their fingers and their toes, Steve-O allows Ryan Dunn to give him cuts on the corner of his mouth. This is excruciatingly painful thing to witness, but also surprisingly touching, because Steve-O just wants to “fit in.” As the video fades out, he sarcastically states, “Boy, am I ever glad I came down to see what was happening in this room.”
In these two scenes, Steve-O and Pontius don’t appear to be performing for the camera, but instead, try to impress their friends. They’ve returned, briefly, to the moment when they were poor, anonymous fools, sleeping four to a hotel room, having a great time. In the obnoxious excess of jackass: the movie, catching this glimpse of humility helps us remember why we fell in love with this group in the first place.