Retro Review: Shakes the Clown
Of all the wonderful things to commemorate, January turns out to be clown and circus month. I’m sure you all have that noted down on your calendars, as everyone loves clowns. Except children. And adults. Does anyone actually enjoy clowns?
Besides Batman, of course, who enjoys them in a more visceral, punch them repeatedly in the face manner. Which, near as I can tell, is the only manner to enjoy them. So this month, we will honor the grease-penciled terrors the way we know best, by reviewing them in movies. Not by punching them. I know, it’s a bit of a let down for me too.
Shakes the Clown (1992)
Written, directed, and starring Bobcat Goldthwait, Shakes the Clown is a decidedly dark look into the world of entertainment, which rather incidentally involves clowns. Though featuring a talented cast including Julie Brown, Kathy Griffin, Adam Sandler and Robin Williams, the comedy in this farce most often falls flat, leaving the audience with a surprisingly sober look at depression and alcoholism as the real focus of the film. Ba-dum-ching!
Send in the Clowns
Shakes is a lovable clown with a drinking problem that causes him all sorts of misery. Though genuinely talented (almost super humanly so) as a performer, he misses more birthday parties than he attends due to late night drinking and womanizing, as demonstrated in a painfully awkward opening scene with Florence Henderson. His erratic behavior causes him to lose a big time shot at a television series to his arch rival, Binky the Clown, as well as the love of his girlfriend, Julie Brown (sporting a painful lisp which comes and goes too often for credulity.) His friends, a pair of drunk clowns (with a young, pre-fame Adam Sandler) try to straighten him out, but he falls off the wagon and terrorizes a birthday party, getting him fired from the party-clown business.
Seizing the opportunity of Shakes losing his sobriety, Binky murders the party-clown manager and frames Shakes for the act. Shakes hides out as a mime in a school run by Robin Williams (credited as Marty Fromage) until he is able to piece together the crime and confront Binky live on television. The producers are impressed with Shake’s antics, and the story ends with him getting the show, keeping the girl, and attending AA meetings.
If you’re thinking this sounds a bit hectic, you’d be right. The pacing is as erratic as Shakes’ temper, with long drawn out dramatic scenes that meander towards simple revelations (Shakes is a drunk, clowns are assholes, Binky is a narcissistic prick, etc.) The comedy fairs only slightly better, with punchlines taking ages to materialize, even though you can see the joke coming from a mile away. A few genuinely funny sequences liven the piece up, but are sadly few and far in between, occurring at the beginning and ends with lots of dead space in between. Poor pacing is further hampered by throw away performances, where stars like Williams or Sandler seem to be just filling time without a clear goal in mind.
Little Brown Jug
The true heart of Shakes the Clown is an unflinching look at addiction. Shakes is a believable drunk, and his problem with the bottle is not hidden behind any mawkish jokes or cheap gags. When he tries to quit, he gets the most believable DT’s you’ve seen outside of a halfway home. His rationalizations and relapses are painfully real. One reviewer quipped that Shakes the Clown was “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.” One could argue that it is more aptly the Requiem for a Dream of alcoholic clown movies.
Shakes attempts to lampoon, viciously, the entertainment business as a bunch of angry, self-involved clowns with gigantic substance abuse issues and perverse cliques who all hate each other. It may be a spot on critique, but it is unfortunately delivered like a sledgehammer blow. Few outside the world of stand up comedians will get the joke, and instead Shakes leaves the audience with an assortment of tawdry and angry characters, unfortunately signifying very little.
While Shakes the Clown does an excellent job of highlighting the issues of dependency and contains some hidden gems, the lack of consistent laughs reduces what could have been an wonderful farce into a despondent diatribe. Bobcat is hilarious in so many of the movies he stars in, it is a real tragedy that his jaundiced take on life in show biz trips over it’s own clown shoes.