Clowns are squalid clans in 'Shakes'

September 02, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Shakes the Clown," which plays for a day at the Charles, has but a single joke, although it's close to an hour and forty-five minutes long. Of course the joke goes through a number of variations -- I thought, for example, that Variation No. 4,563 was quite funny, whereas Variation No. 1,396 was a little laggard. There's a nice run between 2,500 and 2,800 and the movie picks up again toward the end, Nos. 5,675 through 6,000.

Here's the joke: Those frolicsome figures of fun, foolishness and foppery, with the orange hair, the ping-pong ball noses, the red crescent smiles, the baggy trousers full o' pies, those . . . clowns? Monsters, to a man.

Figures skating on the thin ice of despair, about to plunge through to the frozen subterranean amber of bitterness and futility. These boys aren't the crying-on-the-inside kind of clowns, they're the puking-on-the-outside kind. Like Hamlets in rubber lips with rubber chickens in their pants, they are the princes of our disorder.

Clown culture, according to "Shakes the Clown," is the long dark midnight of the soul, a bruise-colored fantasy out of the nightmares of some haunted existentialist demon-saint, like Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Clowns themselves are mean and squalid little men, who hang out at a joint where it's always last call at 2 a.m. and the air is full of blue steel cigar smoke.

There, different clown cliques jockey for control. The Binky group is currently in ascendance, since Binky has just inherited a daily cartoon show, but Binky just isn't very funny. And he knows it. And it's turning him crazed. Meanwhile, everyone knows that Shakes deserved the show. And across town, another clan is gathering strength: the mimes.

The author of this twisted madness is Bobcat Goldthwait, who wrote and directed as well as starred. In his normal guise, Goldthwait has made a minor career as a psycho comic actor, with a voice that seemed to tremble hysterically between rage and epicene self-doubt, coupled with an utterly disheveled appearance. A little of him went a long way. But that aspect of his performance has been modulated greatly; in fact, behind Shakes' garish smiling lips, Goldthwait's face is never truly available for scrutiny. (None of the clowns are out of makeup: That's the joke, that clowning isn't a profession, it's virtually a genetic subgroup.)

There's a great deal of inside show-biz humor, and you have to look quick to see the cameos -- Tim Kazurinsky of an old edition of "SNL" has one, and ever-decent Paul Dooley also appears. Even Florence Henderson, for God's sakes. The extended secret performance, however, is handed in by Robin Williams, as a really mean mime who brutalizes Shakes in his class for not doing a good wall, and is clearly modeling himself after various Hollywood acting gurus.

The movie is really for a subset itself: If you're a member of that tiny group of people who always wondered why everybody thinks clowns are funny, you'll find "Shakes the Clown" hysterical.

'Shakes the Clown'

Starring Bobcat Goldthwait.

Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.

Released by Fineline.

Rated R.


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