"The CITIZEN KANE of Alcoholic Clown movies" was the critical comment used as a tagline for SHAKES THE CLOWN, a bizarre comedy that stretches its central gimmick thinner than watered-down carnival taffy.
Set in a mythical "Palookaville," no-class metropolis and lard capital of the US, the film proposes that professional clowns, despite their cheery exteriors, have a darker side in the form of a boozing, brawling subculture--like truckers, cowboys or sailors. Here clowns pal around with their own
kind, drinking to excess in clown bars, swapping profane clown shop talk and beating up mimes, every clown's natural enemies. It's a cute idea, definitely worth a short subject or series of TV sketches, but here bloated into a feature-length vehicle for writer-director-star Bob "Bobcat"
Goldthwait, whose distinctive grungy persona previously graced a couple of POLICE ACADEMY sequels and bombs like BURGLAR and HOT TO TROT.
At least here Goldthwait has a role suited to his dissipated manner with Shakes, a besotted slob of a clown who staggers from one kiddie-birthday-party engagement to another. His speech-impeded bowling-champ girlfriend Judy (Julie Brown) can't make him face the fact that he's an "awcohowic," and
Shakes soon wrecks a house on a drunken binge. Fired from the clown booking agency, he drinks himself into a stupor, and is framed for homicide by a successful but untalented TV clown named Binky (Tom Kenny), a cocaine-crazed psycho who's just bludgeoned Shakes's ex-boss to death with a juggling
pin. What passes for a plot deals with Shakes's attempt to clear his name and save Judy, kidnapped by the sinister Binky after the murderer simply blurts out his guilt to her in a scene that proves Goldthwait should have enlisted a good co-writer to help him over the rough spots.
The better parts of SHAKES THE CLOWN are the ambience moments in Shake's favorite tavern, the Twisted Balloon, where Palukaville's clown community gathers to get plastered, their circled eyes bleary and sullen, cigarettes drooping from greasepaint smiles on their lips as they snarl insults and
four-letter words back and forth. There's novelty in hostile clown rummies who swear and perform unwholesome bodily functions, but in the course of the uneventful storyline, the joke gets very old, very fast.
Shakes isn't a very likable hero at all; he's drunk all the time, cheats on his girlfriend (debauching TV sitcom mom Florence Henderson for openers), and even Judy admits that he's no good in bed. Shakes's one reedeeming feature is that, when halfway sober he's a skilled party clown (and here
Goldthwait goes through superhuman feats of gymnastics with the help of pathetically obvious stunt doubles). Shakes ultimately joins Alcoholics Anonymous, attending their meeting in full circus regalia. But nobody will see SHAKES THE CLOWN as a powerful plea for sobriety.
Shakes comes equipped with a couple of sidekicks (Adam Sandler and Blake Clark in the thankless supporting parts of Dink and Stenchy) who drink just as much as he does but "can hold their liquor," and guzzle beer as the trio speeds through Palukaville and outmaneuvers a pair of bonehead comedy
cops (Jeremy S. Kramer and Jack Gallagher in the really thankless supporting parts of Boar and Crony). Tom Kenny scores a minor thespian coup as the deranged, Vegas-style Binky, doing an amusing job with the concept of a neurotic joker who's incapable of being intentionally funny. The same cannot
be said of comic-turned-superstar Robin Williams (he's listed in the credits as Marty Fromage), who doesn't generate a single laugh from his cameo as a mime instructor. Way down in the cast among the veteran stand-ups one finds Bruce Baum as a villainous rodeo clown. Baum has made numerous
hysterical short films for TV, and he probably could have done well with his subject matter in a fraction of the running time.
Forced to come up with a raison d'etre for SHAKES THE CLOWN, Goldthwaite told the Los Angeles Times that it was an allegory of the dog-eat-dog world of stand-up comedy, and that the mime-bashing parodied homophobia. After some experience writing, producing and directing short films, he penned the
film's screenplay--expanding from a stage comedy skit--and shopped it around for years, encountered rejection and revulsion at every studio until he took it to I.R.S. Media, an outfit with a record of financing outre material. With his wife Ann Luly credited as producer, Goldthwait said the budget
"cost about eight minutes of WAYNE'S WORLD."
Despite a certain cult notoriety that sprang up immediately around its subversive premise, SHAKES THE CLOWN did poor business, and only played major cities before going to home video later in the year. (Excessive profanity, excessive substance abuse, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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