Gladly Suffering Fools

Off with a bang: Human goofball Johnny Knoxville rides a rocket to stardom -- or somewhere -- in "Jackass: Number Two," which offers plenty of belly laughs, or bellyaches. (Sean Cliver -- Paramount Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

Joseph Campbell would have loved "Jackass: Number Two."

Yes, the late philosopher -- and grand guru of human mythology -- would have watched with serene appreciation as Johnny Knoxville, Chris Pontius, Steve-O, Bam Margera and Wee Man play practical jokes on one another, perform dangerous stunts and commit gross-out acts guaranteed to jolt even the unshakable out of their seats.

Lowbrow entertainment, he'd understand, may be fast food for hoi polloi -- at least, by the reckoning of people who use expressions like "hoi polloi." But its disregard for aesthetics, social redemption and serious themes makes for deeper insights into our humanity than a thousand Picassos.

Watching "Jackass," Joseph Campbell would probably think of the Acapulco cliff divers who have plunged 130 feet into the Pacific for centuries, or the young Masai warriors who mark passage into adulthood by killing a lion. He might have reflected on the time-honored rituals of youth; the need for young men (or women -- although not in this movie) to test their limits; or the human being's universal need to perform heroic or dangerous (or in the case of "Jackass," heedlessly stupid) feats and return triumphant and ready to rejoin society. And I'd like to think he'd enjoy the belly laughs this movie seeks from its audience.

Sure, "Jackass: Number Two" amounts to wall-to-wall bonehead behavior. And it's hard, if not impossible, to justify the grosser material, some of which borders on the pornographic. But these arrested-development dudes are -- in their own goofy way -- living inside a cartoon in which violence is temporarily painless.

"Why wouldn't they make two of the same size wheels?" yells Knoxville riding a penny farthing bicycle, just before he crashes into a snowdrift and lands on the unforgiving concrete beyond. The cartoonish atmosphere continues with a gag in which a spring-mounted boxing glove lurks behind a sign designed to lure unsuspecting victims to read it; and some "Jackass" members even do the classic step-on-the-garden-rake routine so that the handle whips into their faces. All that's missing are the cartoonish sound effects: those wah-wah-wahs and twittering birds.

"Why did you do it in the first place?" asks a disbelieving April Dunne, mother of "Jackass" player Ryan, as she looks at the cattle branding her son just voluntarily sustained on his bare rump.

" 'Cause it's funny," says Ryan.

Of course, the frisson of real danger is always there. But the performers understand the simple integrity of a slapstick gag and they're prepared to suffer for its entertainment value. This is what the Jackassers do for fun -- and their fans, already well versed in such previous shows as the original MTV series and the 2002 "Jackass: The Movie," understand that perfectly. And is there any significant moral difference between these performers and dedicated ballerinas who damage their feet in the highfalutin interests of art, or Daytona drivers risking their lives on the track?

Beyond the dumb-fun Zen of "Jackass," something even more appealing arises: a certain innocence. And what innocence would that be? you might ask, as Steve-O pushes a metal fishhook through his cheek so he can dangle on a fishing line in a sea of hammerheads, or Chris Pontius exposes a sensitive part of his anatomy (covered like a cloth puppet to resemble a fuzzy mouse) to a very nippy snake?

The clue comes just after they have completed their stunts, gags or self-inflicted torture sessions. As they congregate in a celebratory ritual of relief, look closely into their eyes. You'll see something extraordinarily tender: a childlike glint. It's only there for an instant before they laugh it off and prepare for the next ordeal and, no doubt, "Jackass 3."

Jackass: Number Two (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extremely crude material, dangerous stunts, profanity and nudity.

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