There’s always a point early on in a Jackass movie where I wonder if I’ve grown out of these guys’ shtick. Stunts involving dudes getting hit in the balls, dudes getting hit in the face, dudes crashing hard into the ground, dudes getting nearly gored, dudes almost getting electrocuted: Seriously, how much pain do I need to witness?
And every time I think that, I wait … and, sure enough, there’s a point later in that same Jackass movie where I realize it’s still hilarious after all this time. I should know better — we should all know better — and yet I laugh and laugh and laugh. Yes, it’s hardly an insight that a large percentage of humanity is a sucker for watching nut-shots, but these movies go beyond that simple Pavlovian comedic response to something deeper. The pratfalls in a Jackass film are funny, but they’re also warm and emotional. They make me smile. As I get older, I find (like most people) I have trouble maintaining long-term friendships. But the stars of Jackass — these absolute knuckleheads — have been a steadying influence as I (and they) reach middle age. Pain is our love language.
The last time Johnny Knoxville’s gang of idiots assembled was for 2010’s Jackass 3D, my favorite of the trilogy, even if signs of fatigue were starting to show. After all, these guys had been doing assorted filmed pranks for a decade by that point, the novelty having long worn off. Well, the boys are back for Jackass Forever, extending the joke seemingly beyond its breaking point.
But while you can feel some diminishing returns setting in — they’re still trying to light their farts underwater, still pooping in public places where they shouldn’t — the film nonetheless sustains its 90-minute runtime. The stunts are still pretty outrageous, but the originality of their design ultimately isn’t that important. More and more, I simply enjoy watching the guys react to the guy who’s volunteered for this specific torture chamber. There’s a real kinship there, a shared empathy. Each in turn, their bodies are under siege — the more vulnerable the body part, the better. And I get drawn into that misery — I feel like I’m experiencing it along with them.
I’ve winced watching athletes get hit in the groin, but with Jackass Forever I had to catch myself from instinctively protecting my crotch in sympathy with what the Jackass crew put themselves through. These films offer a rare form of audience participation — you feel the performers’ pain, almost literally.
Created by Knoxville, series director Jeff Tremaine and Oscar-winner Spike Jonze, the Jackass franchise has never hidden the fact that there’s a queer subtext operating beneath the slapstick. Back in 2010, Steve-O told Vanity Fair, “We always thought it was funny to force a heterosexual MTV generation to deal with all of our thongs and homoerotic humor. In many ways, all our gay humor has been a humanitarian attack against homophobia. We’ve been trying to rid the world of homophobia for years, and I think gay people really dig it too.” (Added Knoxville, “We’re not suppressing anything! We’re over here sitting on dicks!”)
And while this element of the series may be a bit overplayed, there’s no denying that Jackass Forever finds the guys still wholly comfortable looking at each other’s junk, even if it’s bleeding and mangled. (Actually, especially if it’s bleeding and mangled.) Cast members dress in drag or in flamboyant outfits, not to mock but to express themselves. And when Knoxville wonders if Wee Man has padded his crotch while wearing bikini briefs, he walks right over to him and grabs the guy’s package. Nothing grosses them out or makes them feel “icky” — except for maybe pig semen, which is probably understandable.
All that pent-up sexual tension gets set free during the group’s stunts. Knoxville has added new cast members — and, with the 2011 death of Ryan Dunn and the firing of Bam Margera, also had to say goodbye to popular regulars — but the dynamic remains the same, with Johnny as the ringleader and his gaggle of merry men by his side. (There’s also now a female Jackass member, Rachel Wolfson, who helps break up the dude-irific vibe a little.) People get seriously hurt in Jackass Forever, but smiles dominate the proceedings. The more their fellow cast members are in agony, the more ecstatic the rest of them are. But it’s not a bullying pleasure — it’s a form of bonding between the observers and the inflicted. It’s how they stay close and connected.
And, frankly, I think it’s a way a lot of men relate to one another. Stereotypically, guys don’t talk about feelings — where the pain can cut deep — but, rather, through the far more superficial bumps and bruises we accumulate through life. God, my back is killing me. Man, I twisted my ankle playing basketball. Dude, did you see that guy get smacked in the nuts?! It’s a safe, skin-deep version of vulnerability that’s acceptable between men, and Jackass has always taken it to hilarious extremes. Knoxville’s buddies like hurting each other and getting hurt — it’s a brotherhood of shared bodily ache that’s about physical toughness, as opposed to emotional sensitivity.
Which isn’t to say that Jackass Forever is packed with thoughtless meatheads — quite the contrary, when you consider, as just one example, Steve-O’s very public struggles with addiction and depression. But guys who have known each other as long as the Jackass crew tend to still talk in the language of younger men, which gives Jackass Forever this unexpected wistful air. Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Knoxville — we’ve been hanging out with these dunces since they were in their 20s, but you won’t hear much self-reflection or stock-taking in Jackass Forever. That’s not how this works: They’re here to injure themselves as much as possible, partly to prove that they still can and partly because pain is the glue of their friendship. Some men are blood brothers because they served together in combat, or were part of the same fraternity or sports team. The Jackass crew are eternally intertwined because they’re obsessed with smacking people in the dick.
There’s not an ounce of sappiness in Jackass Forever — it’s hard to be sentimental in a film with this many jokes about asses — and yet I couldn’t help but feel a little moved by all that’s unspoken. When Knoxville recreates a stunt involving a rampaging bull — or Steve-O revisits an old bit, seeing if this time he can finally light an underwater fart — it’s not exactly the sign of Gen-Xers struggling to stay relevant. Instead, it’s an indication of old friends reasserting what binds them. You or I might reunite with a college friend, reminiscing about that one teacher we hated or that one upperclassmen we were both crushing on. In Jackass Forever, Knoxville and his boys do something similar by hurting themselves again and again. It’s how they show they care.