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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2004
Dumb and dumber: revenge of the idiots
Let's get one thing straight: "Jackass" is a very, very, very stupid movie. But that's not really a valid point of criticism, as it's kind of like complaining that a porn flick is dirty. Johnny Knoxville and friends fully intended this to be a stupefying collection of lowbrow laughs and boneheaded behavior. If that's not the trip you want to take, don't buy the ticket.
"Jackass -- The Movie" is basically a more hardcore version of the popular MTV series in which Knoxville and his equally addled homeboys engage in reality-TV pranks and stunts, usually involving extreme pain, humiliation or both. Whether it's paper cuts between the toes, snorting lines of wasabi, a golf-cart demolition derby or just tooling around Shibuya in panda-bear costumes and smashing shopping carts into each other, the "fun" never stops.
What's truly amazing is this film even got made, considering how unlikely it is that any insurer would underwrite stuff like bottle-rocket-powered roller-blades or inserting a toy car into one's bottom. Virtually every scene in this film involves someone writhing in agony, and it's rather amazing no one was crippled.
"Jackass" is further evidence, as if any was needed, that these days people will do damn near anything to be on TV, whether it's allowing yourself to be humiliated by Donald Trump, eating bugs in the Outback with a bunch of head-cases or confessing your secret obsession with whipped cream and girl's undies to a smarmy talk-show host. It's the modern version of the freak show, where the whole point is to salaciously gasp and gawk at the geeks.
But let's give credit where it's due: "Jackass" -- itself a sort of intersection of trends started by "extreme sports" and the Farrelly Bros. gross-out comedies -- has certainly redefined the limits of extreme idiocy. (And that's saying something when you consider it's surpassed MTV competition like "Beavis & Butthead".)
But, I hear you wondering, is it any good? Tough call. At least half the time this plays like a bunch of obnoxious frat boys after one keg too many. But there's something to be said for any movie that leaves you gasping in amazement, even if it's amazement that anybody would be so stupid as to dangle their butt over an alligator pit. (Although such cruel humor may not seem so fresh to those familiar with the tortures in Japanese TV's gaman [endurance] shows.)
Knoxville's more absurd pranks are the most fun, like when the entire cast get made-up as liver-spotted, geriatric geezers and engage in antisocial behavior, flagrantly shoplifting and careening about on runaway electric wheelchairs. The reactions of those not in on the joke are priceless. Such moments, however, are definitely not in the majority.
"Bad Santa" is also a very stoopid film, but coming from director Terry Zwigoff -- who made the perceptive documentary "Crumb" and the wonderfully acerbic "Ghost World" -- it's far more disappointing. You can kind of see the gears clicking in his head when he signed onto the project -- caustic critique of consumerist Christmas, rank antisocial attitudes, misfit losers triumph in the end -- but the results on screen are about as welcome as some blissfully distant aunt giving your 4-year-old a djembe drum for Christmas.
I'll admit, the idea of having Billy Bob Thornton playing a foul-mouthed, thievin', fornicatin', alcoholic sunnuvabitch working as a department store Santa is not without a certain charm. For about five minutes. But if you're ever looking for a textbook example of a one-joke film, then "Bad Santa" is it.
The first time we glimpse Thornton in his Santa outfit -- eyes bleary, beard falling off, whiskey breath that could melt vinyl, pissing himself, and making the little kids cry -- it's a hoot. It's also an obvious hoot, and the film has nothing to do but spin it out over 90 minutes: See Santa drool. See Santa get in drunken brawls. See Santa, ahem, ram his candy cane up a clerk's chimney. Ho-ho-ho.
There are those of us sick enough of this two-month advertising binge posing as a religious holiday to readily embrace an anti-Christmas movie. But while "Bad Santa" may deserve to exist as karmic balance to the insipid "Elf" or "Polar Express," that doesn't mean it meets our expectations. Zwigoff aims for the jarring misanthropy of a Todd Solondz film ("Happiness," "Storytelling"), but never manages to provoke thought. He also attempts the comic crudeness of a Farrelly Bros. film, but never finds the rhythm needed to drive home a punchline.
With "Ghost World," Zwigoff created what stands as the best depiction of the alienation that results from rejecting mainstream American culture. That film displayed a sly wit and the ability to observe its milieu closely, from tacky mall "theme" stores to "hip" underground comic shops. "Bad Santa," though, feels generically Hollywood from beginning to end, from the rent-a-face extras who play the teenage skater bullies, to the sexy barmaid who seems to have stepped out of "Coyote Ugly." And its humor wouldn't seem out of place in a "National Lampoon" flick: Zwigoff isn't beneath cramming four kick-in-the-nuts laughs into one scene.
In the end, despite its sour, Grinchian view of holly-jolly Christmas, "Bad Santa" doesn't seem so much a critique of crass, shallow culture as a byproduct of it.