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Jackass returns to test the nation’s gag reflex

by Glen Baity

People go to the movies for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons I go (besides the fact that, y’know, it’s my job) is because I like seeing actors and filmmakers take on life’s Big Questions: What’s the relative value of truth in this modern world? Is it noble to pursue others’ happiness over our own? And so on.

But those only represent a few of the issues that arise in the course of a well-examined life, and I think we should all acknowledge that there are other questions that, while less important on an existential level, are also widely, if not universally, pondered.

Questions like: What would happen if I got together with my friends and played dodgeball with medicine balls? What if we rode skateboards through a gauntlet of swinging sandbags? What if we got pelted with rubber bullets flying at speeds of approximately 500 feet per second?

Of course, the appeal of these inquiries is that their answers are more or less definitive (the answers to the above are, in order, “It would hurt,” “It would hurt,” and “It would hurt very, very much”). There can only be so many outcomes when a person, for example, jams a fishhook through his cheek and goes swimming with sharks, or stands blindfolded in front of a raging bull, two of the many indignities suffered by the lunatics in Jackass Number Two.

The reason former MTV staple Jackass is so popular is because very few people ever actually turn those hypotheticals into experiments, and those who do are generally memorialized in “News of the Weird.” Of course, the reason it’s called “Jackass” is because nobody in their right mind ever would do any of the things played out in the franchise’s second feature.

Which is undeniably the train-wreck appeal. Before you go any further, know that I write these words with deeply realized shame, since people with the temerity to call themselves film critics are supposed to hold things like a gripping plot, beautiful cinematography and a clever script in the highest regard.

Jackass Number Two has none of those things. It really is nothing more than a hodgepodge of remarkably stupid ideas played out to their logical conclusions.

But I’m also a pragmatist, and I can say with confidence that the Jackass guys have made me laugh more than most professional comedians (who aren’t named Bill Murray) ever have or ever will. Also, as I write this, HBO is showing Twister, which has a plot, characters and a script, none of which go very far toward making it a good film. So perhaps these things are more negotiable than we all thought.

I’ll state the obvious by saying that Jackass humor isn’t for everyone, but let’s not delude ourselves that it’s just for stupid people. To the contrary, the more you watch, the more it seems like there’s a weird sort of intelligence and creativity at work behind some of these stunts. At its best, Jackass Number Two is guerilla theatre (like when auteur Spike Jonze dresses up as a 90-year-old woman and parades around topless in broad daylight – horrifying, yes, but the reaction shots are priceless). At its worst, it’s a bunch of drunk guys vomiting on each other.

The dozen or so members of the Jackass crew are obviously good friends, and the camaraderie shines through. They come off like modern-day Stooges, beating the crap out of each other because they think people getting hurt is funny.

You want me to say it? Fine, I’ll say it: It is funny. I don’t know why, but I know in my heart that watching someone take a header off a rocket-powered shopping cart is a good use of $8 and a Saturday afternoon. Not every Saturday afternoon, mind you, but at least one or two.

The fact that Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and Bam Margera are a million times more vulgar than Larry, Moe and Curly doesn’t point toward the end of civilization as we know it, though I can see how people might think that. After all, I don’t have a 12-year-old kid, so it follows that I can watch this film without worrying about someone I love trying to jump off the roof on his skateboard.

But the Jackass guys are, I guess, professionals of a kind. As long as none of them die (and really, it’s a miracle they haven’t), they could easily make a hundred more of these low-budget films and keep themselves living the Miller High Life forever and ever.

That would be fine with me, as these films’ segments go so quickly that anything crossing your personal pain threshold is practically over before it starts. Since most of the skits aren’t related in any way, the viewer can always harbor the hope that the next fade-in will bring something great. And that’s the draw: The end is usually the same, but the means are never predictable.

Having said that, my rational side knows that Jackass Number Two amounts to nothing but a collection of absolutely disgraceful, depraved stuff that no respectable person would laugh at.

Thankfully, movies are still shown in dark theaters, so enjoy yourself. Nobody has to know.

Having now surrendered the remainder of his credibility, Glen Baity welcomes your comments at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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