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Jackass Forever Deploys Comedic Carnage to Touch Something Profound

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Jackass crew has returned after more than a decade in retirement with Jackass Forever. Most of the original crew of lovable idiots reconvenes for a new round of jovial self-mutilation and comedic stunt work. They’ve added a new generation as well to help shoulder the burden of all the abuse. Reader, let me tell you, I was absolutely delighted by Jackass Forever. I laughed to the verge of tears.

Permit me a brief digression from spider bites and pully assisted wedgies. Earlier this week, I spoke with Anders Danielsen Lie about his role as a problematic graphic novelist in The Worst Person in the World. The conversation has stuck with me and, quite unexpectedly, feels germane to a discussion of this film. In our discussion, Anders talked about the interplay of high and low culture; he observed how certain things are verboten in high society: you can’t depict pooping in highbrow art. He explained that the appeal of the graphic novel as an art form is that it can grab liberally from both high and low art without abiding by the conventional strictures of how art is supposed to operate. It has the freedom to tell something meaningful in a “big Freudian universe” by operating outside the usual rules of “art.”

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Truly, I think the Jackass films are playing around in exactly the sphere he described. They shouldn’t work so well: there’s a billion YouTube and TikTok clips of people doing similar stunts that should scratch the same “primal danger” itch, but they don’t. Not even remotely. On one level, it’s insane to compare Jackass Forever to the works of Richard Linklater or Michael Apted’s Up series, but at the same time I’m left struck by the portrait of aging and long term friendship the Jackass series has created. The Before trilogy resonates not just because we want to see what’s next for characters Jesse and Celine, but also because we want to continue our meta relationship with performers Ethan and Julie. How do the look? Do they have the same chemistry? Can they recapture the magic? Jackass Forever works not just because Chris Pontius is maiming his own penis for the two hundredth time for our laughs, but because he’s doing for the laughs of his buddies. There is a sense of communal joy and camaraderie in the people who are helping Pontius to use what appears to be a medieval torture device to turn his phallus into paddle ball racket. There’s even a sweetness to everything here that is, perhaps, the secret sauce for why the series remains so damn endearing. The stunts and pranks never dip into the realm of the cruel; the laughter of the participants and onlookers not only makes it ok for us to laugh, it invites us in.

It is also genuinely interesting to see how these guys have aged. Most have lived the life over the last twenty years and their faces show it. Dave England does not have the sort of face we oft see on screen, and in that he becomes something captivating. Physically, they all carry the scars of a life spent destroying themselves for our laughs. The film has added a new generation of performers to the mix. The new folks not only fit the vibe of the originals but grew up enthralled by them. The film goes out of its way to show all the younglings, most endearingly Zack Holmes, talk about what the show meant to them. Those moments come not from cloying interviews, but from organic moments of genuine emotion captured between the cast, both young and old. Somehow they have built a multi-generational troupe.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

There remains something endlessly endearing about the way front man Johnny Knoxville (Action Point, Elvis & Nixon) puckishly manages to punk his buddies for the millionth time. A taser to gut after a hug is the norm, and the inspiration for a belly laugh. When one of them gets hurt? There’s a real warmth in their concerned interactions afterwards. When Knoxville is injured on a stunt gone awry, the fraternal, but still ball busting, affection is palpable. In their way, all these guys genuinely love one another. I’ll let someone wiser than I opine on the homoerotic text of a group of male friends who know each other’s genitalia better than most married couples, but it’s clear director Jeff Tremaine is acutely aware of the way he presents these knuckleheads.

I hesitate to call a post-#MeToo moment in a film sweet, but in one sequence a scorpion is left on the breast of the new female cast member in the aftermath of a scorpion venom Botox gag. And the “Jackass” – Pontius – assisting on the stunt asks with an endearing sheepishness if it’s ok to remove the arachnid from her boob. If these guys can improve the way they approach gender dynamics, it should serve as a lesson to all guys. In some small way, Jackass Forever stands as portrait of evolving masculinity over the course of more than two decades.

Or maybe I’m just a dumb dumb who really enjoys watching UFC Heavyweight Champ Francis Ngannou punch someone in the ding dong.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Jackass Forever is in theaters on February 4, 2022.