In the past, I’ve said a great deal about how much I dislike reviewing “critic-proof” movies. You already know what you’re getting and you know whether or not you’re on board, so why waste anyone’s time with a review?
Alas, this past weekend gave us two such movies. One was Moonfall, the latest absurd disasterpiece from Roland Emmerich, who hasn’t changed his brain-dead overblown conspiracy theorist shtick even after it went stale somewhere around 2008. The other is Jackass Forever, in which Johnny Knoxville and his dumb little buddies subject themselves and each other to comically outrageous torture for our entertainment.
Both of these movies are inherently critic-proof to the point where spending any degree of higher brain function on them is almost defeating the point. Yet I wanted to give Jackass Forever its day in court for one simple reason: It was very specifically made and marketed as the final Jackass entry.
The trailer sold me on a film that directly addressed the encroaching age and mortality of the idiots who’ve been doing this for the past twenty years. But more than that, it was supposed to be a film that celebrates the legacy of the franchise, and those who grew up watching the show. All of this with a healthy dose of gallows humor as we watch the explosive mayhem in glorious slow-motion.
It’s been said that all humor is derived from suffering, and I don’t quite agree. It might be more accurate to say that all humor is based on empathy. It’s rooted in our ability to sympathize with someone else’s pain, or to root when someone gets the pain they deserve. As such, directly addressing the performers’ encroaching age and long-lasting injuries makes them more human, which in turn makes their friendship more palpable and their ongoing prank war all the funnier.
So I sat down to see the movie and I came away surprisingly conflicted.
On the one hand, I felt kind of cheated. Literally everything in the full movie that even tangentially mentions the advancing age and waning elasticity of the Jackass team was already included in the trailers, and it’s all packed into the last half-hour. Hell, Steve-O’s joke about how Knoxville can keep on taking concussions for another year was cut from the film entirely! The filmmakers were not even remotely interested in exploring this.
Another disappointment comes with the inclusion of Rachel Wolfson, here making her debut as the first-ever woman on the Jackass stunt team. Just imagine the possibilities of having a woman on the team, adding a new dimension to the stunts that had never previously been possible in the franchise’s history. But then Wolfson licks a taser, she lets a scorpion sting her face a few times, she gets blasted with a paint cannon, and that’s it. Nowhere near the levels of pain, humiliation, terror, and genital mutilation that her male colleagues are subjected to.
On the other hand, it’s fucking Jackass. Anyone going into this should expect 90 solid minutes of high-speed faceplants, electrocutions, explosions, bites and stings from various animals, unscripted reactions from hapless passersby, and increasingly elaborate means of getting punched in the bollocks. That’s exactly what the film offers, so I feel like an idiot for complaining that I didn’t get what was on the tin.
Moreover, this whole franchise was built on the mantra of “boys will be boys”. The Jackass brand is all about the testosterone-driven pubescent fantasy of pulling stupid shit for attention while laboring under delusions of invulnerability. It’s a combination of Neverland — the appeal of which is the fantasy of never growing old or growing up — and Looney Tunes — the appeal of which is the knowledge that no matter how badly the characters may be blown up or pulverized, they’ll show up in the next scene like nothing happened. Though we are acutely aware that Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O are getting on in years, openly acknowledging this or examining it with any level of detail is fundamentally incompatible with the spirit of the franchise.
Likewise, male nudity is directly hardwired into the show, partly because of course anything so firmly rooted in the teenage male mentality would be obsessed with penises. But more to the point, male nudity is inherently taboo and transgressive in a way that female nudity isn’t. Consider the scene in which Steve-O — a repulsive, tatted-up man in his late 40s — stands completely nude in full view of the camera while a team of beekeepers turns his penis into a goddamn beehive. Yes, we see a colony of bees swarming all over his dick, stingers embedded into his scrotum, and we watch the whole thing in extreme close-up.
Now (if you will), imagine the same stunt with Rachel Wolfson. Imagine this beautiful woman in her mid-30s standing totally nude in front of the camera, right before someone shoves a live queen bee up her uterus and fills her vagina with bees. Doesn’t quite have the same transgressive thrill, does it? The thought is shocking, yes, but not in a way that’s anywhere near as funny. Especially considering that female genital mutilation (TRIGGER WARNING) carries highly specific connotations with real-world human rights violations in a way that male genital mutilation really doesn’t.
A great deal of ink has been spilled in recent years about the likes of Joe Rogen, Dave Chappelle, and other comedians who make “dangerous” humor. The ones who tell jokes that are “edgy” and “brave” and offend people because they’re pushing the boundaries. Meanwhile, Johnny Knoxville is getting his ass thrown into the air by a goddamn angry bull for our amusement and he ain’t offending anybody for it.
It’s funny because Knoxville and company aren’t trying to hurt anybody but themselves and each other. A basic tenet of comedy is to never punch down, and it’s not always easy to pick your targets, but the Jackass team never have to worry about punching down because they’re too busy punching each other! However, that calculus changes when you bring a woman into the equation. It’s exceedingly difficult to show a man inflicting harm on a woman — certainly to the extent that the men here inflict harm on each other — while keeping the film a comedy.
Yes, the filmmakers could easily have found a way around this by making it so Wolfson was the one inflicting damage on her male cohorts, but the filmmakers don’t even do that much! The one and only scene of female-on-male violence that comes to mind is the one in which softball superstar Danielle O’Toole lobs her fastest softball directly into Danger Ehren’s junk. Damn shame Wolfson couldn’t have gotten in on the fun.
Another crucial part of what makes Jackass so entertaining is the fact that the stunt performers never do anything halfway, and that’s what pisses me off about Jackass Forever. They should either have done more to explore the possibility that this could be the final outing for Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Wee Man, et al., going in-depth into their legacies and their battle scars and their efforts to go out with the biggest possible bang; or they should’ve omitted the angle entirely. Likewise, if they were going to put a woman on the team, they should’ve gone all-in and made every effort to find ways of including her in ways that added to the transgressive juvenile thrill, because there’s no point otherwise.
In both cases, these efforts at adding new layers to the brand come off as flaccid and half-baked afterthoughts. They’re unfortunate and unnecessary distractions to what’s otherwise a classic bit of Jackass fun. But if you can move past that, you already know what you’re in for. Make of that what you will.
Also, the film shows Tyler the Creator getting electrocuted, Machine Gun Kelly getting the wind knocked out of him, and Tony Hawk getting covered in semen from a giant dick-puppet kaiju. You won’t see any of that in any other movie, no doubt about that.