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Clowns sure do get a bad rap when it comes to the movie industry. It's not often that you get a movie that portrays the clown in a positive light. Then again, if you ask most people over the age of five, they'll tell you that clowns are a creepy sort. Whether or not this is a case of life imitating art or art imitating life is a different question altogether, but the fact remains that the clown is more often equated with fear than amusement in this day and age.
Look at the examples, for crying out loud. My childhood memories of watching the Grand Prize Game every morning on the Bozo Show were shattered when I first saw KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE. The perception wasn't exactly made any better watching fare like IT, SHAKES THE CLOWN, CLOWNHOUSE, or QUICK CHANGE. Hearing the horror stories about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, or reading about the Joker trying to kill off Batman, or seeing the alcoholic, foul-mouthed Krusty on "The Simpsons" only did more to reinforce my fears. So to this day, I gotta say that I still agree that Clowns are a disheartening lot.
Fast forward to 2002, the year View Askew's latest offering VULGAR hit the public. I had heard of this movie when it hit the festival circuit in 2000 (and was subsequently snubbed by most of the important film festivals), and it definitely piqued my curiosity. While I'm one of Kevin Smith's biggest critics, I still have an affinity for some of his work, and am interested in seeing the products he is associated with. VULGAR was directed by Smith pal Bryan "Steve-Dave" Johnson, produced by Smith and Scott Mosier, and features several alumni from Smith films, including Silent Bob himself. The character of Vulgar the Clown is based on the View Askew mascot, shown in a brief animated sequence at the beginning of CLERKS. Since the theatrical release was extremely limited, I had to settle for a DVD copy on down the road.
VULGAR is the tale of Will Carlson (portrayed by Brian O'Halloran), who masquerades as children's entertainer Flappy the Clown. He barely makes ends meet, drives a shitty car, gets harassed by the vagrants that live in his yard, and to top it off, is supporting his condescending elderly mother. In a desperation attempt to make his life better, he gets an idea to branch out in his clowning abilities, and decides to rent himself out as a gag performer for bachelor parties. His alter ego becomes known as "Vulgar", and dresses in a bustier, garters, fishnets, and heels, but replete with the familiar face paint he also dons as Flappy. On his first job, he encounters a father and his two sons, the Fanellis, who proceed to assault and sodomize him. After the incident, he tells nobody but his best friend Syd (director Johnson), and tries to get his life back in order. After rescuing a young girl from her abusive father, he is heralded as a hero and gets his own television variety show. Everything seems to be going great until the Fanellis find him again.
VULGAR got panned by the critics when it was released, and for good reason. This movie ain't pretty. First off, O'Halloran is terrible. Sure, he's been a Kevin Smith staple since day one, playing the various Hicks family members, but the problem he's always had is that he's a TERRIBLE actor. I mean terrible like how the hell did this guy ever decide to go in to acting terrible. His whiny character comes off as Dante from Clerks in greasepaint. You half expect him to put his head and his hands and whine "I'm not even supposed to be here today!" Aside from the lead performance, the direction here is just painful to watch. Shot in the ultra-low budget style, and blown up from 16mm to 35mm, with just a LITTLE too much Kevin Smith influence in cinematography. Per the general View Askew style, the blocking is horrible, the framing is unnatural, and you almost get motion sickness watching normally easy moving camera shots. But the real problem here is the story itself. The movie falters along telling the tale of a one-dimensional character who the audience really doesn't get a chance to care about, much less want to. All we know about O'Halloran's Will Carlson is that he's a loser with a bad family life. He has no interesting character traits (unless you consider being whiny "interesting") and no real interaction between anyone other than his mother and Syd. He's boring. Where are his quirks? What is his purpose in life? All he seems to have in the way of a goal is taking care of a mother who treats him like shit, and for a fleeting moment he seems to have a concern for children.
Will's lack of purpose seems to transcend to the rest of the film as well. The movie itself is without much in the way of lesson or resolution. Once Will makes it big as a childrens' TV host he's rediscovered by the father from the trio that raped him a year earlier. The fact that the father somehow on the side of performing gangrapes with his twisted full-grown sons also has an estranged trophy wife and young daughter is showing a sloppy, lazy bit of storytelling. Why insert the wife and child in there other than to throw in some really obvious plot device? Couldn't Ed Fanelli just have easily found Will again while shopping at an electronics store or while passing him signing autographs? Anyway, point aside, Ed and his boys demand Will give them 50 grand in exchange for a video they made of his assault, which could harm his career. Will makes the cash drop, but they bluff on the video, and demand another night of action with him. Will and Syd go all vigilante on the trio, but due to some all-too-coincidental turns all three of their assailants wind up dead without either of our protagonists actually responsible for their deaths. And then the movie ends. No questioning of Will and Syd, although there are bits of physical evidence ALL OVER the place. The resolution is a sloppy copout that screams of amateur filmmaking.
On top of the aesthetic flaws, the movie also relies heavily on shock value. I was fortunate enough to only have access to a rated version, which was already graphic enough to make the title of the film ring true. I'm not that squeamish, but I can point out when a gratuitous scene is needed to reinforce an idea versus when it is used just to get a cheap reaction. What is contained here is purely reactionary. There's no reason for the sexual assault scene to be as graphic and drawn out as it was. It dragged on to the point of being dull. We know the idea of forced sexual assault is pretty disturbing, that's why nobody wants to go to prison. There are several other sequences that are unnecessary in this regard as well.
The movie is bad, and the gratuitous use of Kevin Smith references and in-jokes doesn't help matters. I guess since Smith still had some say in this one he got to throw in just enough references to fit this into his "ViewAskewniverse". There's a character named "Caitlin". One of the kids Flappy the Clown is set to entertain is "Benny Affleck". "Walt Flanagan's Dog" is hyped on the talk show where Flappy begins his rise to fame. We get a play on Scott Mosier's last name with "Sam Mosier", as well as a play on Malcolm Ingram, director of Smith-produced DRAWING FLIES, in Smith's own character "Martan Ingram". There's also a cameo from almost all of Smith's running buddies: Walt Flanagan, Scott Schiaffo, David Klein, and Ethan Suplee to name a few. And of course, Jason Mewes, who shows his range by playing a burnt out drug addict. But this time, he's shirtless. Oh, and lest I comment on the special bonus featurette on the DVD, a documentary called "In Defense of DOGMA", where Kevin Smith AGAIN makes apologies for his work and tries to fluff himself up as some new age superintellectual religious scholar.
Again, I've managed to toss in more vitriol toward Kevin Smith than needed in this here review, but when he has his hand this far in the cookie jar, it's hard to avoid. But what shouldn't be hard to avoid is this movie, which I advise you to do at all costs.
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