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None of this swayed Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a frequent critic of Hollywood's moral compass. In a public letter to MTV parent company Viacom, Lieberman accused the network of gross irresponsibility in not "informing viewers that the performer of the stunt was wearing protective clothing." The senator insisted that MTV either substantially alter or "cancel this exploitative and degrading show."
Despite its move to a later broadcast time, and the addition of extensive warnings after each commercial break, Jackass's youthful insouciance began to falter. A contrite-looking Knoxville opened one episode being solemnly interviewed by MTV News's Kurt Loder. He delivered a heartfelt plea to viewers that they not attempt anything they were about to see.
"We just lost all our momentum," Knoxville says of this period. "The way Washington came down on us, we weren't going to be able to do the show like we had been doing." He pauses, apparently still bothered by the memory, and then concludes sharply: "I quit. I was done." MTV only learned that Jackass's 25th episode was its last by reading Knoxville's frustrated comments in a Tennessee newspaper.
That would seem to have been the end of the Jackass story. But three months later Knoxville's phone rang. "Spike Jonze and Jeff Tremaine called me about doing a 90-minute version of the show -- just one nutty idea after another," he relates, growing visibly animated as he recounts the moment. "We'd get an R rating. It was wide open! The energy was so high because we could do whatever we wanted! It was PG-13 for TV, but this would be real R."
The project was approved with this sly comment from MTV Films senior vice president David Gale: "We're all going to hell."
Knoxville recalls a preproduction session in which he and his cohorts learned about the digital videocameras they would use to shoot the movie. "Oh, that poor bastard giving us a tutorial on working the cameras," he remembers. "We're sitting around the room punching each other, flicking each other's ears, giving each other wedgies. He just real forlornly said, 'All my life I've wanted to make a film, and you guys are making a film.' It was great! He was so bummed they gave the cameras to idiots."
Or at least idiot savants. "The film looks just as shitty as the TV show," Knoxville continues, "but the cast and crew all have a certain spirit. We're like a band that can't play our instruments well, but we mean it. We make mistakes, but we mean it."
The howls of protest over Jackass's leap from MTV to the big screen aren't coming from lawmakers this time. Instead it's the film critics and cultural pundits who are agonizing over Knoxville's box-office success. The Los Angeles Times's Manohla Dargis conceded the movie was often "embarrassingly funny," but added that "it's unclear why anyone would shell out money to watch a bunch of guys run around in their underwear puking up their guts and, in one explicitly visible instance, soiling their underwear." Moreover Dargis tut-tutted the film's inherent chauvinistic infantilism: "Did I mention that you don't see any women doing this sort of thing?"
A.O. Scott in the New York Times took a similar tack, comparing Jackass to "a documentary version of Fight Club, shorn of social insight, intellectual pretension, and cinematic interest." Yet he still had to admit that it provoked "a spasm of revulsion that mutates into shocked, involuntary laughter ... I assume no responsibility for what happens if you see this film, especially if you have a good time."
The New York Post's Lou Lumenick dispensed with any ambivalence, calling it the worst movie of the year, a label exceeded only by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who termed Jackass "the worst movie ever." In a heated "open letter" to the industry his publication serves, Bart sounded a gross-out call to arms, warning that "the ratings board is going to feel the heat. The studios will buckle. Worst of all, the audiences out there may get turned off." Harkening back to the comedic golden age of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, he couldn't help but note that "from a technical standpoint, [Jackass] would embarrass even a freshman at film school."
Obviously Bart didn't take the time to quiz any actual film students. At Wesleyan University, recently deemed the nation's "hot show-biz alma mater" by Vanity Fair, the reaction to Jackass has been far from negative. "The very mention of the name Jackass reduces my students to giggles," reports Wesleyan assistant film professor Lisa Dombrowski. And yes, several of these budding auteurs have already embarked on their own Jackass-inspired film projects. Moreover, the Los Angeles Times' Dargis may need to re-evaluate her feminist critique.
"The film's opening weekend, I had more women who saw Jackass than men," Dombrowski says. "Part of the appeal is definitely Johnny Knoxville. He's very attractive -- if you happen to go for that Lower East Side hipster look. But there's also something exhilarating about watching people completely let loose of all their inhibitions, disregarding pain, fear, embarrassment, revulsion -- being willing to do anything. That's true whether you're male or female. You can get downright giddy watching these people in Jackass, even if you think it's really stupid."