Loved by children. Desired by women. Adored by bartenders everywhere.
Part dark comedy, part absurd and gross spoof, and part drama, Shakes the Clown managed to entertain me on this, my second viewing. Columbia gives a great anamorphic transfer to this cult hit; the penultimate entry in the alcoholic clown genre.
The beginning of this film shows former Brady mom Florence Henderson as a floozy wearing part of some smeared clown makeup. When her young son finds a passed out clown in the bathroom, he steps over him to use the toilet, and manages to urinate all over the clown's head; followed by the clown waking up and copiously vomiting from his hangover. If you don't think you can get past this scene, then forget this movie. If you can see some stupid humor here, read on.
Bobcat Goldthwait, who earned his fame in the Police Academy series of films, wrote, directed, and starred in the title role of Shakes the Clown, a story of an alcoholic clown in a fantasy world. In the mythical city of Palookaville, clowns make up a sizable portion of the population and drink, carouse, and are basically coarse people while remaining in their makeup 24 hours a day. They drink in clown bars, have cliques, and await their chance at the brass ring; being chosen to host the children's television show (a spoof of "Bozo the Clown"). Clowns attack on sight their archenemies, the mimes. There is "our" group of clowns led by Shakes, including a sidekick played by the then relatively unknown Adam Sandler (Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy) and the mean clowns led by disco clown Binky (Tom Kennedy). Binky tries to work out a drug dealing conspiracy with the superior acting rodeo clowns, who have their own bar and beat up on "party" clowns. When things go wrong, Binky frames Shakes for a murder, who must then dress up as a mime to keep the police off his trail. Here Shakes gets his introduction to the mimes, led by Robin Williams in an uncredited role.
Enough overview. The plot isn't all that much a part of the experience of this flick. Much of the time people are just talking in the clown bar, or showing Shakes trying to keep making a living at birthday parties despite massive hangovers and rampaging alcoholism. The film really makes caricatures of the characters, except for Shakes himself who does have a certain level of humanity as he ultimately has to deal with his alcoholism.
There were some pretty funny scenes and lines that made the movie work on some level for me this time. I saw the film years ago and just hated it. I'm not sure why I liked it better this time. Perhaps seeing Adam Sandler and Robin Williams with more recognition helped. The scene with Williams leading the mimes, and acting like a drill sergeant trying to teach Shakes the craft worked pretty well. I liked the subculture where the crude clowns could turn into happy faced artists at a kids birthday party, then go back to hard drinking and trying to get laid. I will say that they don't joke about Shake's alcoholism; you see the terrible effects his drinking has on his career, relationships, and physical health. This I count as a positive.
I have to say though that the transfer Columbia has provided for the film is better than the film itself. Another beautiful anamorphic picture from one of the best studios for DVD. As you might expect, there are plenty of bright, garish colors, and they are vivid and clear with this transfer without bleeding. Black levels and shadow detail are great, and most of the time the image detail was superb. On a few occasions a bit of pixelation, gone quickly, and some softening of the image at times keep it from being perfect; but neither of these problems is really noticeable unless you're looking for them like I have to during review. A bit of grain was the only film defect that I could find, without nicks or dirt to mar the print. High marks indeed, and the movie looks far better than the VHS version I saw years ago.
The sound isn't quite up to the quality of the video, but is far more than adequate. Columbia showed that a Dolby Surround track can be very good if done properly. Frequency response was great, extending down into good subwoofer territory. Surrounds are used sparingly but I found nothing really misplaced directionally. The front soundstage was largely center driven (a fault of all Pro-Logic soundtracks) but did extend to the front main channels. Dialogue was always clear and audible.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, as I said, the film worked for me on the second viewing. That doesn't make it a great film, or necessarily even a good one. I've been known to get a guilty pleasure out of crude humor or stupid jokes on occasion, and that's what happened here. Goldthwait could have done a much better job of direction; some scenes ran far too long, others built up and then cut away without a payoff. That first scene with Florence Henderson could have been much funnier but got overly crude and graphic, taking away from the scene itself. So I guess I say I liked it, but I didn't love it, and if called to testify might deny saying I liked it later.
The extra content on the disc is slight, and I was disappointed. I'd heard that a commentary track from Bobcat Goldthwait was in the works a while back, but it never got made and added to the DVD. I'd have enjoyed hearing his vision for the film since it doesn't have a clearly defined one, being part comedy and part drama. Talent Files are scant, though I found it ironic that Adam Sandler gets an entry while other parts just as big or bigger didn't get one. Amazing what doing some blockbuster hits will get you. A leaflet of production notes, and trailers for Shakes the Clown and Big Daddy are the rest of the special content.
Shakes the Clown is sick but whether it's a joke is a matter of taste. And this film is pretty tasteless. But there are a lot of Shakes fans out there and they will be glad of the great picture on the disc. If you like crude humor, then give this a try. Most of us will almost certainly want to opt for rental over immediate purchase, but it marginally can be recommended for addition to your collection.
Bobcat Goldthwait is credited for an interesting premise but is sentenced to stick to acting rather than directing in the future. The film itself is acquitted despite its deficiencies. Columbia is commended on another great transfer, but I have to ask them to please do better with their Talent Files and to perhaps work harder getting those commentary tracks when they are already in the works.
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