Shakes the Clown (1991) sounds great on paper. That’s why I put it on (well, and it was free). Bobcat Goldthwait plays the titular clown, who inhabits a suburban world (of that peculiar 90s, 50s throwback variety) in which various entertainers congregate in gangs. Think Switchblade Sisters (1975) meets The Truman Show (1998) with a whole lot more booze. Shakes and his buddies hang out at a bar with all the other clowns broken up into cliques. Adam Sandler is one of Shakes’ cronies; Tom Kenny plays Binky the Clown, Goldthwait’s coke-addicted rival and competitor for the Bozo role on an in-world TV show. It’s too bad it never really comes together.
What it gets right, it gets right: that the world hates clowns because they’re scary. More terrifying than the clown as such is the person trapped beneath the make-up, made to serve like Jim Carrey in The Mask (1994), sealed bloody and screaming into the pied iron maiden à la Black Sunday (1960). Or at least that’s what my therapist told me as a seven-year-old in clown therapy (I ran out of class crying in the middle of 2002’s 102 Dalmatians—long story). While there are party clowns, rodeo clowns, mimes, etc., broken up almost as if they were different ethnically aligned gangs, they all seem to be seedy outsiders, the untouchables of this society. We know regular human beings exist and that these entertainers exist to serve them, hence why most seem to be hard-drinking barflies. This unease that covers the entire film crystallizes in a moment, but one that still haunts me, perhaps one of the scariest bits I’ve seen this past year. The clowns gather at their bar and watch on TV as Peppy (Syndney Lassick), who headlines a big show, announces his forced retirement on account of (not so subtly implied) sexual assault. We see Peppy from the perspective of the viewers, so he’s small and framed by the television screen. His eyes and face look black and distorted with eyes and lips like an Oni Mask. We never get any closer. His giggles swell over the blackness as the camera fixates on his hideous face. We cut. And all the clowns in the bar want to know: who will replace him? Shakes or Binky? Somehow Peppy’s demonic presence meant nothing to them. His inhumanity is theirs.
It has its funny moments too. Binky beats his boss to death with one of Shakes’ juggling sticks. Robin Williams (billed as Marty Fromage) plays Mime Jerry, who relentlessly harasses Shakes after he disguises himself as a mime to avoid being framed for the aforementioned murder. Mimes and clowns hate each other in this world. Mimes are theater kids; party clowns are amiable losers. But it turns out there are rodeo clowns too, who despise party clowns for their craven personalities and flaccid antics.
These divisions and antagonisms open space for a world a viewer might actually want to inhabit, even get lost in—but that never really arrives. The plot remains paper thin (Shakes is a drunk, but he’s also a decent guy and a good clown. Then he gets framed for murder, but it’s fine and he gets the spot on the TV show). Not enough is done with the characters or the setting. I want a three-hour epic set in this world. I want the clowns driven out of town for murdering a human being, hemmed in on all sides by torch-bearing citizens just waiting to get revenge for all the bad party tricks, the sleeping around, the gall to wear so much greasy face paint. The Adam Sandler clown could walk out and sue for peace, give one of those inspiring speeches, honk his nose, leave the room silent—and then get graphically torn limb from limb by children who found him scary at their last birthday party. The writers had a set up for a really darkly comedic reflection on difference, otherness, and alienation here. If you can write a clown who snorts coke by putting it into his big red nose and breathing in, why not do more with this landscape of clown gangs skirting human society? If a man can get bludgeoned to death by SpongeBob SquarePants, if a little boy can wake up to find his mother has had sex with his birthday party clown, why can’t we get a little more focus? The direction wasn’t bad after all. The strange cuts and occasionally unconventional angles give a taste of life on the clown side of town. But I say take it all the way: (sorry for this one) shakes it up.