Shakes the Clown (1992) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I've made fun of this movie a lot in my columns, but in its own strange way, Shakes is an offbeat little comic masterpiece. It was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwaite, and also stars the Cat in the title role. It takes place in a world in which clowns have a far greater presence than they do in our own. They never remove their makeup, they drink in clown bars (but never dare to wander in a rodeo clown bar), shop at clown tailors, and are able to find many types of other retailers which cater to them and/or to mimes (SALE TODAY: invisible rope). They travel in gangs, and stop to beat up members of rival gangs who belong to a lower spot on the clown heirarchy.

Basically, this is the clown pecking order:

  1. TV Clowns
  2. Big-time circus clowns
  3. Rodeo Clowns
  4. Birthday Party Clowns
  5. Class clowns
  6. Clowns of the animal kingdom
  7. Clowns of the insect kingdom
  8. One-celled clowns
  9. Mimes

Just as "pussy birthday party clowns" should never wander into rodeo clown bars, mimes should never wander into any clown bar.

Shakes is a Birthday Party Clown, and an alcoholic one at that, leaving him only a hair's-breadth above the mimes. More than once, he's been the one to close the clown bar, because he's despondent over his life. A second generation clown , his problems began when he watched his father die in "that elephant incident", then culminated in his losing an important TV gig to Binky, an arrogant, unfunny bad-taste clown who sings his songs in a style halfway between disco and saloon-torch.



DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterbox, 1.85:1

  • no major features

Bobcat picked up the idea of a clown bar from his days doing improv and comedy clubs. After the shows, all the comics would wander into a nearby bar. You'd think a bar full of funnymen would be a great time, right? Not at all. It was just guys whining about how the less funny guys were getting chosen for movies and TV shows, and trying to improve their place in the comedy pecking order. Bobcat reasoned that the whole system of comedy social interaction must apply to clowns as well. I suppose he's right. Probably somewhere like Sarasota, just outside the Ringling facilities, there is a bar where clowns drown their sorrows. (Although I'm guessing they take off their make-up first, and maybe slip into normal shoes.). In this movie, the surrogate Sarasota is Palukaville, USA, lard capital of the country.

Bobcat maintains the unique world throughout he film. I find the whole concept bizarrely funny and creative. The execution isn't as good as the premise, but I still got a kick out of it. Of course, humor is a personal thing, so an oddball film like this won't be a mainstream rib-tickler, but it sure got me laughing in spots.

Our hero is the toast of the town ... ... named Palukaville,
where he begins his story the morning after, with a clown-bar floozy that he picked up here the previous night.
Framed for murder by some rodeo clowns, he fails to enter their sanctum, and is forced to hide from the police, disguised as a mime.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: one star. Ebert 2/4, Maltin 0/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.5 
  • With their dollars ... a legendary failure, but an inexpensive one. It was made on a tight $1.4 million budget, but grossed only $115,000.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Offbeat "alternate universe" genre film that never comes out of character, like the comic underside of Tim Burton's Gotham City. I think it demonstrates a marvelous sense of humor, and I enjoy the film despite some slow stretches.

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