‘Jackass Forever’ aims for the junk, often soaring higher

click to enlarge Why is it again that they do this? - SEAN CLIVER, PARAMOUNT PICTURES
Sean Cliver, Paramount Pictures
Why is it again that they do this?

Jackass, MTV’s early-2000s stunt show, is back as a new movie, and its creators approach it with a more determined than a tireless vigor: the clearest sign, along with the cast’s aging, that it ever went away. With decades of (largely) consensual physical abuse under their belts, the cast and crew take an at times more reflective, at others more bombastic tack here than they often have. Still at best a show of athleticism, emotional endurance, and inarguable flickers of exceptional physical grace, Jackass Forever’s action nonetheless curdles and becomes recitative by the end, feeling less like joyous experimentation than it does hard labor.

There’s a productive transparency to the presence of both those sentiments, but the sense of trying — creatively, and not just physically — eventually overwhelms the film. And it’s a film in a basically arbitrary fashion; given that the decades-spanning series of the TV show and movies works in a short-form format that’s endlessly remixable, it’s only presented as a feature film here due a collision of distribution, funding, and precedent.

Spanning a wide range of material linked more by cast, ethos, and tone than any narrative or interstitial material, the regular Jackass crew, save for a few missing cast members, largely persist here. Jeff Tremaine’s free-form direction is enlivened by series regular Dimitry Elyashkevich’s sensitive and agile camerawork, which wrings modest beauty and insight from rowdy improvisation. The increasingly middle-aged cast, including ringleader Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Wee Man, and an extraordinarily brutalized Danger Ehren, is mostly back — joined by several newcomers and cameo appearances. (With only a single woman, Rachel Wolfson, featuring much, it’s easy to wonder why over the life of the series they haven’t featured more.) The fruits of their collaboration are as rigorously disciplined as they are playfully antic, expressing a daunting vaudevillian range of both elaborate and elegant physical comedy. With a series of (mostly) man-on-man stunts and physical gags as rich in teeth-grinding suspense as they are back-slapping comradery, Jackass Forever has some vestige of the classical packed in around its roots.

The emotional effect of the series — its calling card, I think — both produces and hinges on a vivid imagination, bonding this viewer and surely many others to the cast through the baroque sympathetic workings of shared pain. Verging on body horror, sketches involving trick rooms, and vehicle jumps, as well as plenty of scorpions, snakes, and other dangerous animals, prove weighty enough to be nerve-quickening even for the most resilient viewer. In the brief moments after the stunts, in which the audience can exhale, thoughts of the engine behind them rush to mind. For a series deeply embedded in discourses around masculinity and male friendship, the relationships between the cast feel both ambiguous and rangy: why is it again that they do this? What’s seen on screen blurs the lines between stunted, sadistic goading and deeply rooted emotional support between generational peers — which means that much of what we imagine to be the truth of what we’re seeing is rooted in imagined rituals of fraternal connection left, probably to the film’s benefit, offscreen. There’s a Rorschach test-like space of mystifying guesswork required in gauging who the crew all are to each other that inevitably colors how viewers grasp what’s on display. Between even the most merciless of sketches, in the time within Forever’s fades to black, performers undertake processes of recovery, labor to muster their strength, and pursue difficult discussions — because they must, right? The series’ format elides these moments, but they must be rich as anything we’re shown.

But not all that’s done here reaches the heights described above. Less gripping than the (also sadistic) encounters with animals, bruising stunts, inventive contraptions, and eye-for-an-eye mind games are more elementary or drinking-game style pranks, hinging all too often on genital and especially scrotal abuse. While the series’ affection for puerile humor is a necessary, freeing feature, it’s in other spots a bug. With Forever’s anally and phallically fixated cast obsessed with inflicting and receiving pain, such incursions on privacy and the sovereignty of bodies provide a sometimes expressive avenue for stunted (and very male) forms of emotional intimacy. As is true of the franchise’s more balletlike feats, these invasive acts require considerable forms of intimacy and trust.

But it’s a short slide from these to total cheap shots, to sketches more empty than they are in any way tense or charged. At its worst, over interminable last-act sequences of abuse presented in needlessly byzantine forms, Jackass Forever succumbs to this: the kind of hollow, competitive middle-school humor you’d associate with a locker room or a grade-schooler. The trouble’s not that these cross some censorious line within my mind; it’s that they’re dull instead of interesting, deriving their only real tension from some repressed notion of the forbidden, feeling unimaginative, empty, or at the very least emotionally thin.

Just as weak are the film’s maximalist efforts: bookending effects showcases meant to parody (and perhaps repossess) the excesses of mainstream filmmaking in its current form. But Jackass isn’t built for that — it’s meant to be more scrappy and more intimate — so any warmth felt within these sequences could hinge only on baked-in prior affection for members of the cast, some of whom seem (at least to these eyes) a bit checked out. Knoxville — barring two grand stunts whose inclusion seems calculated to counter the claim — seems fairly absent within Forever as a physical performer, working more as a now-graying carnival barker. Steve-O is relatively game, his hair grown out but his manic default expression intact, looking here like a jittery suburban dad, permanently uneasy in the present. Ehren presents as the de facto star, an impossible sort of trooper — less athletic than some others but absorbing at times genuinely staggering levels of abuse.

There’s enough life and invention here, through him and others, to grant Forever some pretty considerable peaks, fragile as the final assemblage can feel. The mystery of what brings them all to this (can the answer be so simple as bullying, or money?) and the plain record of glowing but halting imaginations provides a foundation for surprise. I couldn’t call it satisfying in the end, but it’s certainly a ride.

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