When we revisited 2002’s Jackass: The Movie for the podcast, I was thinking of the Jackass series as a reality-TV update to Pink Flamingos. There’s an old-fashioned geek show quality to Jackass‘s ever-escalating gross-out “stunts” that feels perfectly in tune with the infamous singing butthole & dogshit-eating gags of John Waters’s midnight-circuit cult classic. Twenty years later, that shock cinema tradition is still very much alive in Jackass Forever, the fourth (and likely final) film in the Jackass canon. Refreshingly, it features the most onscreen peen I’ve ever seen in a mainstream American film, but the penises in question are being punched, bitten, stomped, flattened, stung, and otherwise mangled for the audience’s freaked-out amusement. If there’s been any discernible evolution in the types of stunts the Jackass crew have zeroed in on over the decades, they’ve clearly become less invested in skateboarding & BMX culture and a lot more intrigued by the durability of dicks & balls. Laughing along with each new stab of jovial genital torture, I was again reminded of watching Pink Flamingos and other John Waters classics in the theater with fellow weirdos, where the laughs always hit way harder than they do alone on your couch.
The thing is, though, I don’t know that Pink Flamingos ever reached as wide or as otherwise unadventurous of an audience as Jackass has. Someone in my suburban megaplex theater brought their baby, which I’ve definitely never seen at a John Waters repertory screening, and I think that’s beautiful. I also don’t know that I’ve ever found a Waters film to be this heartfelt & sentimental. For all of Jackass‘s boneheaded commitment to gross-out gags, it’s also now a beautiful decades-long story about friendship; that friendship just happens to be illustrated with smeared feces & genital mutilation. If not only through the virtue of having been around for over twenty years, Jackass has graduated from MTV-flavored geek show to undeniable cultural institution. It’s like an absurdly idiotic version of the Seven Up! documentary series, except that we learn less about its subjects’ decades of personal growth than we learn about their ongoing quest to light an underwater fart on fire. Jackass Forever concludes with clips from the original Jackass film & television series juxtaposed against “stunts” that were revised or repeated for this final installment, and it’s easy to get emotional about how far the performers have come in the past twenty years – even though they are doing the exact same shit in middle age that they were doing as near-suicidal twentysomethings. And since that growth happened on television & suburban megaplex screens instead of exclusively in hipster arthouse theaters, there’s a huge, mainstream audience out there who was along for the entire bumpy ride (including an all-growed-up generation of critics who now get to make lofty comparisons to cultural institutions like Seven Up! & Buster Keaton with a straight face).
One major advantage of having a generation of like-minded sickos grow up laughing along to Jackass stunts is that the old guard no longer have to take the brunt of their own idiocy. Jackass Forever is functionally a passing of the torch to a new crop of social media geek show performers who are willing to risk concussion, suffer electrocution, and belly-splash into cacti, while most of the veterans stand back to provide color commentary. That’s not to say the original crew don’t get their dicks sliced & mashed alongside the baby geeks under their wings; you can just feel a “We’re getting too old for this shit” sentiment cropping up when it comes to the harder-hitting stunts – understandably. I always found the absurdism of the more convoluted gags to be a bigger draw than the neck-breaking life-riskers anyway, and Jackass Forever delivers plenty of those over-the-top novelties: penile bees’ nests, penile ping-pong paddles, penile kaiju, penile everything. I don’t know that the next generation of performers highlighted here carry enough of that absurdist streak to effectively echo the Jackass brand into the future, but they do have the fearlessness of youth on their side, which makes them useful human shields for the stunts performed here. The only memorable personality among them is a goofball YouTuber named Poopies, and it’s only because his name is endlessly fun to say. Poopies.
The best way I can advocate for Jackass Forever as essential 2022 cinema is to report that I laughed for the entirety of its 96min runtime, to the point of total physical exhaustion. It was a cathartic theatrical experience, given how few comedies I’ve seen with a crowd in the past two years – a difficult circumstance to ignore given that there were two scenes featuring cameraman Lance Bangs puking into his COVID mask. I ended up clearing an entire workday to go see it with friends, a couple of whom could not tag along because they already had other plans to see it opening weekend. What I’m saying is it’s the can’t-miss Event Film of the season, and it doesn’t need high-brow accolades from the likes of Kirsten Johnson or The New Yorker to legitimize its artistic value or wide-audience appeal. You can expect those accolades to only get loftier & more hyperbolic in the decades to come, though, so it’s very much worthwhile to catch up with Jackass while it’s still a populist crowd-pleaser and not just one of the more transgressive cult curios in the Criterion Collection (alongside Female Trouble, In the Realm of the Senses, Salò and, if we’re counting laser discs, Pink Flamingos).