A review requested by John M, with thanks for contributing to the ACS Fundraiser.

It makes perfect sense for Shakes the Clown from 1991 to be a cult film, so I can only call it a sign of the universe going exactly right that, to the best of my knowledge, it has just such a cult. The mixture of ingredients is perfect: stand-up comedian Bobcat Goldthwait's debut as a writer and director of feature films comes from an unimaginably specific, personal place, leading to the creation of an exceptionally idiosyncratic world that looks far too grubby and realistic to register as a fantasy but is also in no meaningful way correspondent with our world. And this is the kind of fearless aesthetic individualism that often (rightly) attracts a particularly rabid population of fans. Meanwhile, in arriving at this most highly individual of attitudes, Shakes the Clown clings to a brutally cynical attitude; it is as utterly corrosive as a comedy can become before it loses the right to that genre. There is nothing but bleakness and nihilism underpinning the film, despite a "good guys win, bad guys lose" ending that's there mostly to keep the experience from being too pervasively toxic. Then again, almost all of the characters are clowns who never remove their make-up, so this is merely to be expected.

The world is certainly the thing that's foregrounded, along with the character relationships, and the spare, paint-by-numbers story only really exists to give those characters something to do in that world. What we've got: Shakes (Goldthwait) is an alcoholic clown who plays kids' birthday parties and has random anonymous sex all the time: it is after just such an event that we meet him sprawled on the floor of a bathroom, right in front of the toilet bowl, as a boy gingerly tries to pee without dislodging him. This, of course, means that he ends up with a faceful of urine, in basically the first narrative beat of the movie. Then he extricates himself from the hungover advances of the woman he slept with (Florence Henderson, blithely subverting her entire career), her face covered in smeary patches of clown make-up that make her resemble a victim of syphilis, or domestic abuse, or both. And he trundles off the company of his only slightly more functional colleagues, and to the impatiently forgiving arms of his much-suffering girlfriend Judy (Julie Brown).

It's at this point that Shakes the Clown abruptly swerves from the movie it appears to be from the opening (a crude comedy about a drunk clown who fornicates in between bouts of disgusting humor, all in good subversive fun) and turns into a belligerent howl from somewhere deep in Goldthwait's id. For several minutes, the action stops following Shakes - in fact, the action just plain stops, tarrying at the Twisted Balloon, a bar that caters to an all-clown clientele. Here we learn a great deal about the rivalries within the clown community, centering around the imminent retirement of local TV icon Peppy the Clown (Syndey Lassick) and the infuriating selection of the arrogant Binky (Tom Kenny) as his replacement; we learn quite a lot more about the booze-soaked weariness of the clown regulars, among whom number Shakes's friends Stenchy (Blake Clark) and Dink (Adam Sandler, giving easily the best performance I've ever seen him give). In the background, like a miniature chorus in greasepaint, LaWanda Page and Martin Charles Warner make extravagantly memorable impressions as a pair of blear figures with no names, only the aura of decades of accumulated fatigue.

Eventually - like, more than half of the way through the 87-minute running time - the film finds its way into a plot, with Binky framing Shakes for the murder of Owen Cheese (Paul Dooley), the manager of both clowns; Shakes goes into hiding as a mime, the most hated enemy of the clowns, while Binky joins forces with some almost-as-hated rodeo clowns to back him up, but the development of that story is so slow that even at the most intense moments, it doesn't feel like much is happening. The lengthy introduction scene at the clown bar sets the tone far better than anything involving the intrigue over the TV show; this is a movie reeking of gin and depression, and the narrative stasis and general air of morbidity of the opening scene, refusing to go anywhere, and refusing to give us anything but the bitterest kind of comedy, nails that sullen mood perfectly. It's like the vomitous poetry of Charles Bukowski incongruously kitted out with clowns; like a live-action version of one of Ralph Bakshi's animated tales of aimless urban squalor. It is funny only because it's too repulsed to take any of its characters seriously.

In other words, Shakes the Clown is next to impossible to recommend to anybody, though I found it deeply compelling as a collection of surprisingly realistic characters filtered through cartoon logic. Its depiction of clannish backbiting among figures who are selfish wastrels even at their most sympathetic draws upon Goldthwait's experience in stand-up, fighting like a rabid dog with all the other comics forced into equally rancorous territorial fights, and while the vision of humanity on display is extravagantly free of compassion or any kindly feelings towards any of its characters - the only figures who aren't basically shitty are Owen and Judy, one of whom ends up dead and the other who is repeatedly mocked for her Elmer Fudd-esque inability to pronounce Rs - it also clearly suggests that the writer drew from a lot of lived reality in drawing his sketches. Clown make-up and goofy names and setting in the absurd town of Palukaville, the nation's leading lard producer notwithstanding, this isn't remotely the assembly of caricatures I'd always assumed based on the concept. In fact, it's extraordinarily low key, even reigning in the manic Robin Williams during his extended cameo as a passive-aggressive mime instructor. The film's considerable rancidity is earned, and it's sharply insightful, and the comedy is just strong enough to make it go down easily.

Still, anything this caustic can be a rough go: 87 minutes is already about as long as I could possibly want to spend with Shakes and friends in one sitting. It's also not really to the film's benefit that Goldthwait is better with actors and words than with the camera: there's an almost defiantly indifferent quality to the cinematography by Bobby Bukowski and Elliot Davis, which isn't grotty enough to feel deliberate, but is too grainy and rough to be at all enjoyable. It's right in line with the scuzzy look of many an American indie of the '90s, not particular accomplished and not at all exceptional. None of this makes the film's attitude any more palatable, but then, there's no indication that the film wants to be palatable. This is entirely dedicated to being a merciless, clinical examination of a rotten strata of humanity - being off-putting is exactly the point. Whether this is worth the time or not is in the eye of the beholder - critics at the time lambasted it, for what it's worth - but Shakes the Clown clearly achieves what Goldthwait wanted it to, and the unapologetic bluntness of it is itself worthy of praise, however awkward and squeamish.