Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Film Review: SHAKES THE CLOWN (1991, Bobcat Goldthwait)

Stars: 3.75 of 5.
Running Time: 87 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Bobcat Goldthwait, Tom Kenny (HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE, the voice of SPONGE BOB SQUARE PANTS), Adam Sandler, Robin Williams, Kathy Griffin, Julie Brown (BLOODY BIRTHDAY, EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY), Paul Dooley (DEATH WISH, SIXTEEN CANDLES), Florence Henderson, LaWanda Page (ZAPPED!, Aunt Esther on SANFORD AND SON). Costumes by Stephen M. Chudej (WEDLOCK, RAISING ARIZONA, TAPEHEADS, ANGEL TOWN).
Tag-line: "Loved by children. Desired by women. Adored by bartenders everywhere."
Best one-liner: "You didn't see nothing old man. We're just five happy party clowns, sitting down to a plate of beef. White, powdery, beef." or maybe "Shakes- take a bath, will ya?"

Shakes the Clown. SHAKES THE CLOWN. He's here, he's in your space, he's in your face, he's crashin' at your place, and it's just too late to do anything about it. He already drank half your beers, soiled your sheets, and has intimately acquainted himself with your lavatory. I guess this is par for the course when you live in Palookaville, U.S.A. and choose to tussle with the crass, colorful, 'n caddish clown cliques. But Shakes is the best of 'em. He's our hero.

MYTH: To quote Martin Scorsese (!), SHAKES THE CLOWN is the CITIZEN KANE of substance-abusing clown movies.
FACT: SHAKES THE CLOWN is the FRANKENHOOKER or substance-abusing clown movies.

Taking place in an irreverent, psuedo-noirish universe, SHAKES THE CLOWN is Bobcat Goldthwait's satire on the catty cabal that was L.A.'s stand-up comedy scene in the late 80's and early 90's, though I feel as if it could certainly be applied to just about any bitchy subculture, with in-crowds, unnecessary intrigue, watery self-importance, and behavior becoming of twelve-year-old girls. Shakes (Bobcat himself) is having a hard time dealing with the pressure, the drama, the drug abuse, the schoolyard antics- and so he lives on the fringe, an alcoholic clown with low self-esteem and a penchant for swirling around the bottom of the barrel.

Our film begins with a dog- clad in a paper party hat- scarfing down some congealed, day-old pizza as a record skips interminably in the background. A floozy (Florence Henderson!) with smeared lipstick and a torn slip is passed out on a couch amidst a sea of empty beer bottles.

And is that a lei?

A groggy child wanders by on his way to the bathroom, and, failing to espy Shakes' comatose body on the tiled floor, lets loose with a stream of urine which, naturally, showers Shakes' face in a demeaning, grotesque display.

You are on the same page as Shakes- distraught, befuddled, wondering how it's come to this. We're less than two minutes in, Shakes is hitting the bottle, and you don't blame him. You can't blame him. What a world. Next, he's applying his whiteface in a ramshackle, yellowed gas station restroom, ready to zip off to some kid's birthday party. A game of hide-and-go-seek becomes an opportunity to raid the liquor cabinet.

It's like a circus-tinged version of WITHNAIL & I. In an era where comedies were becoming a little too self-aware, too awkwardly 'dark,' and too self-congratulatory, SHAKES THE CLOWN is that rare early 90's black comedy that (mostly) works! Though Bobcat is not above introducing the occasional groan-inducing misfire of a joke or setpiece, it's imbued with a genuine slice-of-life sincerity that sees it through.

You want zany saxophone action? You got it. You want a brutal double low-blow delivered to nettlesome clown flunkies? Comin' right up.

You want Kathy Griffin? A peculiar request, but SHAKES THE CLOWN is ready and willing to oblige you.

You want clown-on-mime violence? All yours. Paul Dooley beaten to death by dope-addled clowns? Knock yourself out. One-liners like, "I bet you were a big hit in lock-up...your checkered pants around your ankles..." We aim to please. THIS tableau?:

It's all here. How generous of you, SHAKES THE CLOWN- you're a veritable cornucopia of clown-related oddities and horrors.

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll cringe: "Everybody loves a clown...so why don't I?" Shakes spends a great deal of the film hanging with his buddies (including a surprisingly bearable 1991 Adam Sander!) and deflecting their attempts at intervention. On one such occasion, while touring the town in a convertible, Shakes deflects their admonishment by offering everyone beers, which leads to a Kenny Loggins-style montage set to a tune named "Me and the Boys" (See also: TOP GUN's "Playin' with the Boys").

Again and again, he's confronted regarding his alcohol problem and diffuses the situation by offering dudes beers, or by raising a toast to sobriety.

Then, despite mounting obstacles relating to substance abuse, Shakes is framed for the murder of a mentor by Tom Kenny's diabolical Binky, which leads to Shakes' undercover stint as a mime aerobics instructor alongside (again, surprisingly bearable for 1991) Robin Williams who went uncredited in his typically loopy role.

Possibly the only scene in film history to combine these two favorite diversions: Bobcat Goldthwait and PERFECT.

But I must take a moment to speak about Tom Kenny's performance as the villainous Binky.

The man, usually confined to voice-over roles (like SPONGE BOB SQUARE PANTS), is a very physical actor with a great look- clearly he was destined to one day play a venemous clown baddie. And he plays it with ghoulish, snakelike, irresistible aplomb- tossing knives, doin' dope, and laughing boisterously for the duration. He is the self-assured, monstrously Machiavellian clown of your nightmares- so get ready for some sleepless nights.

The technical elements are very strong, too: Stephen M. Chudej's candy-colored costume design heightens the almost otherworldliness of this noirish carnival, Bobby Bukowski and Elliot Davis' cinematography is as wide-angled and disorienting as an inebriate clown's night on the town, and Tom Scott's musical score is sax-heavy and down n' dirty (or is that redundant?).

And in one final side note, I must point out a detail which I really appreciated- during the "This is a rodeo clown bar, and you ain't rodeo clowns!" scene, the sign at the bar- 'The Broken Saddle' is accentuated by an actual man in a barrel, raising and lowering himself mechanically so as to appear like an animatronic.

It adds the proper bit of eerie, Lynchian flair to the scene and really pulls it all together. Anyway- and make sure you're sitting down, I suppose- for the reasons I've outlined, I have to give SHAKES THE CLOWN nearly four stars. Let the outcry commence!

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

What an odd film. I've heard of this and can recall seeing it in video stores but never rented/watched it. Sounds definitely like one of those cinematic oddities that fell through the pop culture cracks.

Sean Gill said...

I'd say it certainly deserves a spot in cult film history- utterly bizarre, largely maligned, and probably joked about more often than it's actually seen.

Tempest said...

I remember when it came out because it was controversial. I had no idea clowns would be that snobbish (rodeo clown bar). I did not recognize Griffin and thought she was Joan Cusack. I remember seeing a photo of David Bowie (big fan), Iman and Bob at the premiere for the film. I need to check this one out.

Sean Gill said...

"I remember seeing a photo of David Bowie (big fan), Iman and Bob at the premiere for the film."

Amazing! A cursory google search of this turned up nothing, but it warms my heart to think of David and Imam uncomfortably sitting in the front row at SHAKES THE CLOWN's maiden voyage.

Tempest said...

Bowie and Iman were laughing in the pics with Bob. I gathered they enjoyed the film, but who knows.

NatCat said...

Ahh, Shakes the Clown, the movie that inspired me to do my first (fan)comic... I absolutely LOVE Binky!

(btw, Tom Kenny also received a copy of my comic last year, and he actually recognized the characters, so yay for me!)

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by- very cool about Tom Kenny and the comic- the role is certainly one of the more memorable, 'cartoonish' villains of the 90's.