(1992) Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait; Starring: Bobcat Goldthwait, Julie Brown, Tom Kenny, Blake Clark, Adam Sandler, Kathy Griffin and Robin Williams; Available on DVD
"I remember going on the `Today' show and debating a clown… I couldn't care less about clowns, really. But I told the guy that the only reason why clowns always perform at hospitals is because that's the only place where kids can't get up and run away from them. And he started yelling at me.” – Bobcat Goldthwait (excerpt from 1992 interview with Amy Longsdorf, The Morning Call)
Comedian/actor Bobcat Goldthwait’s feature directing debut Shakes the Clown was once touted as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies,”* and who am I to dispel that notion? It’s a sordid tale about love, lust, angst and substance abuse amidst the dark, seamy underbelly of party clown culture. The world of the clown, at least in Goldthwait’s imagination, is filled with isolation, self-loathing and debauchery. I’m aware I say this quite often around here, but it bears repeating that this movie is not suited to everyone’s taste. We’re introduced to the title character (played by Goldthwait, who also wrote the script) the morning after a one night stand with a lonely middle-aged woman (Florence Henderson). This opening scene will probably determine if you’re ready to bail out or willing to go the distance. Still with me? Great...
* Credited to Betsy Sherman from her review of the film (source: http://thephoenix.com/boston/movies/89022-interview-bobcat-goldthwait/).
Shakes the Clown is set in the mythical town of Palukaville (which looks suspiciously like Los Angeles), where clowns are regarded as a social disease. Shakes belongs to a group of party clowns, who enjoy a bitter rivalry between rodeo clowns and mimes (which for the purposes of this film portrayed them as a sort of bastardized subset of clowns). He hangs out at a clown bar The Twisted Balloon with his enabling buddies, Stenchy and Dink (Blake Clark and Adam Sandler), where they drown their sorrows after performing at birthday parties. When they’re not boozing it up, they’re cruising the streets looking for mimes to terrorize.
Goldthwait skirts the line between loathsome and sympathetic as Shakes. He’s a barely functioning alcoholic who lives from one binge to another, and habitually shows up late to kids’ birthday parties. His failed attempts to sober up continue to perpetuate a downward spiral. Things go from bad to worse when he’s framed for murdering his boss (Paul Dooley), and running from the cops. Suddenly, he’s forced to rely on the same friends he’s alienated to help prove his innocence.
The movie boasts an impressive assortment of quirky performances by comic actors and comedians (many of whom were friends with Goldthwait), which help offset some of the more depressing thematic elements. Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) plays Shakes’ archrival Binky, who hosts a kids show and hates himself almost as much as he despises Shakes (“Binky the Clown? ...Binky the doormat!”). Adam Sandler displays surprising restraint and likeability (probably because he wasn’t a headliner at this point) as self-esteem-challenged Dink. In one scene, he attempts, and subsequently fails to make small talk with a woman at a bar. Julie Brown is Shake’s long-suffering, dim-witted girlfriend Judy, who speaks with an Elmer Fudd-esque lisp. Her cynical friend Lucy (Kathy Griffin) encourages her to dump the clown and move on. There’s also a pair of bickering cops, who keep getting into petty arguments. The cherry on the top of this somewhat rancid dollop of whipped cream, however, is a terrific cameo by Robin Williams as a mercurial mime instructor.
Upon its marginal release, Shakes the Clown created a minor furor among professional clowns who felt Goldthwait’s film cast them in a negative light. While the opinions of a few disenchanted clowns probably didn’t sway public opinion, the movie was reviled by most critics, who focused on its more unsavory aspects, and it flopped at the box office. Despite the critical kneecapping, it’s since earned a small but loyal following. Shakes the Clown is uneven in spots, and Shakes, as a protagonist, is more pathetic than funny, but it has its own dubious charms. If you’re as tired as I am with formulaic, feel-good comedies, give it a try. But be forewarned: If you hated clowns before, you’re not going to love them after watching this movie; and I don’t think Mr. Goldthwait would have it any other way.