Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shakes the Clown

This movie has a special, special place in my heart. I wondered even if i had the right to put it on a site dedicated to films of questionable quality, so staunch am i in my belief in the greatness of Shakes the Clown. How staunch? Earlier this year i had a Shakes the Clown-themed Oscar party. Here's is the meatcake i made for the occasion. Two layers of the finest three-meat meatloaf (beef, pork and sausage), frosted with homemade garlic mashed potatoes, filled with red pepper-onion relish and lovingly garnished with a depiction of our hero (crafted of hard-boiled eggs, horseradish sauce, bacon-cheddar squeezy cheese and two kinds of ketchup) and one of his greatest of many great lines.

You can almost taste my passion, can you not?

Anyway, Shakes the Clown was once described as the "Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies," largely due to the Orson Welles-like triple threat provided by writer/director/star Bobcat Goldthwait. The film is about the triumphs and tribulations of a party clown with a gift for laughter, but a problem with brown liquor.

The supporting cast in this movie is interesting. Adam Sandler makes his first film appearance (fresh from playing "Drug Dealer" in an after-school special) as one of Shakes' sidekicks and i think we can all agree that it's pretty much been downhill from there for him. Less offensively, Kathy Griffin also make an early-career appearance as the fellow waitress pal of Shakes' girl, played by former MTV starlet Julie Brown -- no, not the black one with the British accent, the funny one with the tutus. Also clocking in splendidly are legends LaWanda Page and Milton Berle as a pair of drunk barfly clowns who can always be found sucking down shots at the Twisted Balloon, the local clown bar. There's quite a few more, including Robin Williams making an unannounced and unhinged cameo as a tyrannical mime -- why is Williams so often at his best in moves where he's not listed in the credits...?
Shakes the Clown has one of the greatest openings in the history of motion pictures. Up there with that unbroken crane shot that opens Touch of Evil or the beatdown from a bald hooker that starts The Naked Kiss. I will not go into detail, but let's just say it involves broken records, exploding cigars, people getting their heads pissed on and Florence Henderson with hickeys.

Then Shakes cruises through Palookaville -- a mildly surrealistic place of fedora-ed cops, lady bowlers and, of course, clowns. At first, it's all golden, with Shakes wowing 'em at kids' parties and looking forward to his own jokin', jugglin', cartoon-announcin', balloon-animal-makin' kiddie TV show, poundin' beers and beatin' up mimes with his buddies. But, due to the machinations of asshole clown Binky (played by Powerpuff Girls voiceover master Tom Kenny) and Shakes' own over-fondness for the bottle, shit goes south.
Can Shakes defeat his addiction to the bottle and, if not, survive a booze-soaked terrorist rampage through a kiddie party? Can Shakes win back the love of Judy the Bowler, despite ignoring everything she says? Can Shakes pass as an undercover mime? Can Shakes defeat the evil, coke-dealing rodeo clowns? Can he make it though the DTs? AA?

Shakes does have its weak points: Some bits go on too long, the cop subplot is dull and slows the film. Sometimes what's going on in the background or with a minor character may seem more interesting that what's supposed to be the main idea of a scene. But there's an inspired lunacy and a weird, half-magic realism, half proto-Farrely vibe and it beats the soft, stinky shit out of most other mildly depraved comedies these days. Kenny makes a memorable villain -- weird to think this sleazy, line-huffing bully is actually Spongebob. (What is it with clowns and cocaine anyway? Maybe this is where Dr. Rockzo came from.) It is also full of great quotes -- the Page/Berle interactions are filthy, inspired and worth memorizing, if for no other reason to make yourself laugh in the future, during long drives or moments when you find youself inexplicably (or not) sobbing on the way to work. The line about the little dog will help you much then.

Many people just don't get Shakes the ClownBut some of us do. I haven't seen Mr. Goldthwait's latest work, God Bless America -- terminally ill man gets together with nihilistic teen, goes on spree-kill of bigots, reality TV show stars and assorted assholes. It sounds awesome but i don't think it can possibly top Shakes the Clown.
(This is the whole table. I also made Kahlua-frosted brownies and bourbon-glazed mini-franks to keep with the theme, among other things...)

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