Scanning my audience this past weekend after a morning – morning! – screening of Jackass Forever, I tallied about 40 others in the auditorium. And while I'm delighted to offer a rave for this third sequel to the 2002 slapstick gross-out inspired by MTV's signature stunt/prank show, I'd much rather review the people who saw it with me. The guy sitting in the back, for instance, who routinely hooted at the more nauseating screen feats and was likely the patron who applauded on at least a dozen occasions. Or the kid of roughly 12 who told his chaperone, “Mom, I've never heard you laugh that hard before – not even at Impractical Jokers!” Or the late-middle-aged ladies a few seats away who muttered “Oh hell no” whenever a tarantula or scorpion or vulture appeared, immediately following their aghast reactions with massive giggles.
As a property, Jackass may be love-it-or-hate-it. But I didn't register a single Forever viewer whose responses suggested anything close to hate, and not one person out of those 40-ish left the film until the end credits had completed; that's something I can't even say about my December screening of Spider-Man. Directed, as they've all been, by Jeff Tremaine, and with a brave cast of newbies and guests joining the fearless brigade of Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Wee Man, and the rest, Jackass Forever is clearly giving fans, and I'm definitely among them, what we want. With the series' longtime participants, though, now nearing (or having passed) 50, there's something touching, even moving about this crew of Peter Pans and their willingness to risk life, limb, and the remains of their lunches for our amusement – and more precisely, for theirs. While the guys (and the team's first gal, Rachel Wolfson) may cackle whenever a cohort gets punked, the laughter is invariably accompanied by hugs, and it wound up making perfect sense that my fellow moviegoers ranged in age from prepubescents to seniors. Despite the rough language, physical peril, and copious nudity, Tremaine's franchise extender is a family film. Its stunts are beyond crude, but its heart is unfailingly sweet.
Lest I completely mislead you into expecting anything approaching wholesomeness, I should probably mention that Jackass Forever's opening vignette involves Chris Pontius' genitalia painted to resemble a rampaging Godzilla as it wreaks destructive havoc on Knoxville and company. (The rest is best left to your imaginations – though it's assuredly not flames that shoot from the creature's mouth.) Yet whether Steve-O is having a hive of bees attached to his junk or Knoxville is being flipped by a bull or the gang is attempting the first recorded explosive underwater fart, the geniality that's exuded is practically overwhelming. Although the laughs that Jackass Forever generates are considerable, they're nothing compared to the laughs unleashed by those on-screen, and that includes the laughter of the “victims” of all these proudly moronic routines.
Every once in a while, a performer will appear legitimately horrified by some stunt he's been roped into; I'd be curious to know if Ehren McGhehey has altogether forgiven his buddies for being smothered in honey and salmon and having a bear paw at his crotch. (If it's any consolation, Ehren, your trauma resulted in one of the movie's most hilarious scenes.) But partly because of the skit-blackout-repeat nature of the presentation, and mostly, I'm guessing, because these dudes love each other with unconditional frat-bro fervor, no one stays mad for long. Everyone involved seems constantly aware that, no matter what abrasions and humiliations they endure, it's gonna be someone else's turn next time, and that awareness keeps the proceedings remarkably cheery – and allows the guys to maintain their collective sense of humor – even when someone endures the unthinkable. (After being drenched with five gallons of pig semen, some of which winds up in his mouth, Dave England takes a perfect beat before moaning, “But I'm a vegetarian!”)
As per usual with all things Jackass, not all of the shenanigans play equally well. While he's an awfully good sport, as usual, Preston Lacy doesn't get any material to approach his show-stealing “Sweat Cocktail” routine from 2010's Jackass 3D, and his chief stunt that we're promised is aborted before it even begins, after the morbidly obese man realizes that he's accidentally soiled himself. (Ironically, it's this non-bit that comes closest to making camera operator Lance Bangs vomit – a sure sign of Jackass success.) Plus, excepting the new recruit who goes by the name Poopies, the additional half-dozen-or-so additions to the ensemble are largely confined to the sidelines, and their safer-than-the-norm dares barely make an impression ... though it was endearing, and no doubt legally mandated, when one of the guys had to get Wolfson's permission before shooing a scorpion off her chest. Yet while a few other vignettes feel repetitive or overly familiar (and a number of them are indeed callbacks to stunts initially performed 20-odd years ago), the movie, even at 96 minutes, doesn't feel a minute too long, and a few of the bits are absolutely priceless.
I'm thinking of the “Dum Dum Games” in which contestants are whacked in the testicles for wrongly answering questions … and sometimes whacked for rightly answering them. And the recurring gag that finds unsuspecting castmates – including Eric André! – getting pummeled in the face or the nether regions for daring to exit the makeup trailer or request a cup of coffee. And Pontius having his organ compressed in a clear plastic vice (“It's as flat as a pancake … but it doesn't hurt.”) and used as a ping-pong paddle. And most especially, the early, hysterical coup de grâce “Silence of the Lambs,” an ingenious routine in which guys are paired in rooms purportedly housing rattlesnakes, and through night-vision camerawork, we witness their unmistakable terror as the rooms go completely black and they contend with unseen rattling sounds, mouse traps, cattle prods, and more.
This particular segment inspired the loudest, most sustained, most cleansing laughter I've heard at the movies in ages, and of course, when their panic subsided, the men's nightmare ended with group laughs and embraces, to say nothing of visible relief that they all survived. That could almost be Jackass Forever's glorious mantra: We survived. And if, as has been reported, this is truly a series farewell for Knoxville and perhaps some of his middle-aged companions, at least they're going out on a sensational high and passing the torch in reliable Jackass fashion. “Poopies may not have the biggest penis in the world,” Pontius says while standing next to the grinning young man, “but he doesn't have the second-biggest, either.” That's really funny. Really mean. But really funny.
THE WOLF & THE LION
Among this week's reviews, I considered saving the worst of the weekend's major releases for last. Yet because the unquestionable worst was director Gilles de Maistre's The Wolf & the Lion, a low-budget Canadian offering that doesn't aim to be anything more than a friendly family adventure about unlikely four-legged pals, I think it's best to instead sandwich this title between the two others and just pretend it never existed.
For what it's worth, I had no problem with the film's Aw-w-w!-inducing shots of the cuddly little wolf cub Mozart and the cuddly little lion cub Dreamer, impressively trained creatures whose gentle roughhousing and adorable mews prove winning even though, while they're still babies, they appear to get randomly larger or smaller from one scene to the next. It's everything else in the movie I had a problem with. Such as the questionable motivations of our heroine Alma (Molly Kunz), who really, truly doesn't see anything wrong with housing two wild animals in her lakeside cabin for untold months – up until they're almost fully grown – while she keeps “meaning to” alert a rescue shelter about their existences. And Alma's unmentioned yet apparently unlimited financial resources, as the young woman doesn't have a job yet is somehow able to afford daily, full-sized pot roasts for two growing felines. And the unconvincing, time-killing subplot involving a small-time traveling sideshow whose Web site is “Circus.us.” And the aggressively cute rom-com banter between Alma and the scientist nerd who wants to take Mozart to a nature preserve that will safely re-introduce Mozart to both life in the wild and his long-lost mother – that bastard! And the unspeakable dialogue, and the static human compositions, and the depressingly ill-used Graham Greene as a lovable lothario, and the slow-motion shots of the felines “playing” that look indistinguishable from “trying to tear each other to pieces,” and the obnoxiously worldly tyke who may be the first movie kid to ever run away from the circus, and… . Enough. The animals are cute. The photography is postcard-pleasant. And The Wolf & the Lion, which spends 100 minutes vacillating between pitifully amateurish and distractingly inane, is almost no fun at all.
Most audiences can no doubt tell when, on a personal level, a movie morphs from stupid to just too stupid. But is it a bigger disappointment when one morphs from stupid to not nearly stupid enough?
Throughout the first half of Moonfall, this sci-fi adventure is just as ridiculous as you always pray a big-budget disaster epic by Roland Emmerich will be. After some kind of mysterious outer-space phenomenon knocks the moon out of its orbit, the satellite begins its speedy approach toward Earth, begging the question of whether astronauts (led, kind of inevitably, by Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry) should try to smack it back into place or whether the military should just nuke the damned thing and be done with it – both options being unaccountably sillier than anything similarly proposed in Don't Look Up. In the meantime, tides rise, gravitational forces go haywire, coastal cities are destroyed while everyone high-tails it to Aspen … . You know: the Emmerich usual. But wait! It gets even better! Because in a twist out of a conspiracy theorist's wet dreams, it turns out that the moon isn't the solid mass we've forever presumed, but rather a completely hollow shell housing artificial yet cognizant alien intelligence that's thrived for centuries – just like the portly weirdo with mommy issues (John Bradley) had always suspected! The moon actually wants us dead!
By this point in my screening, I was nearly beside myself with happiness, because while nothing in the movie was making a lick of sense, I couldn't have cared less. We had CGI global annihilation, dammit! We had faux-scientific mumbo-jumbo spouted by the truckload! We had testy soap-opera recriminations between Wilson and Berry! We had adorable, poorly directed children! We had Donald Sutherland, for Pete's sake, intoning high-minded gobbledygook in a rapid staccato for 60 whole seconds! Moonfall was literally everything I want, and so rarely receive, from the Emmerich oeuvre that has continually disappointed me since Independence Day more than a quarter-century ago. Yet for his film's second half, what does the director of this profoundly dopey entertainment go and do? He makes his latest … kind of breathtaking.
I'm not talking about the action on Earth, where Michael Peña, Charlie Plummer, and less-distinct performers go through the typical world-is-crumbling motions. But once Wilson and Berry actually enter the moon's hollowness, the visuals deliver a genuine rush of disoriented fascination, and the movements of the A.I. have a lithe, scary, serpentine grace, like an upgraded take on James Cameron's ambulatory-liquid effects in The Abyss. The sound design, too, is superb – for large chunks, the movie is closer to Arrival than Independence Day – and even when Wilson has a climactic encounter that's baldly derivative of Robert Zemeckis' Contact, you go with it; the troubling theological implications may be defiantly Out There, but they aren't entirely laughable, either. This is all to say that while Moonfall begins as a solid, helplessly engaging early candidate for Dumbest Movie of 2022 honors – one that we would've happily recommended to friends for being so unapologetically terrible – it winds up being … not that bad. Which somehow made the whole experience worse. Why would something this joyously crummy want to ruin our enjoyment by daring to be good?