You clowns are on dope!
Has there ever been a cockier first-time testament to an artist’s cinematic vision? Sure, CITIZEN KANE makes all the lists, but Syracuse-born comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s 1991 directorial debut SHAKES THE CLOWN still stands as a stunning achievement; or at least the best drunk clown-noir you’ll see this year.
From the opening: a record skipping as Shakes wakes up on the bathroom floor to a coyote date with desperate mom Florence Henderson (“You’re my first clown.”), It’s clear that we’re in for quite a ride. Shakes is a clown with a problem. He lives in Palukaville, a dead-end burg where clowns are clowns, all the time. They congregate in clown dive bars, still in suits and makeup, tossing back brews while complaining about the daily grind and the clown class system (and telling dirty jokes).
Shakes is a party clown whose boss, Mr. Cheese (Paul Dooley) has grown weary of tolerating his desperate alcoholism- drinking and driving to nightmarish kids' birthday parties, clowning it up for booze money. Shakes' aspiring pro-bowler waitress girlfriend Judy (Julie Brown of EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY) is also sick of his shenanigans, confiding to her best friend (Kathy Griffin) that she is ready to dump him. In danger of losing his job and girl, Shakes is urged by his friends (including Adam Sandler) to straighten up his act.
Meanwhile, it turns out the host of the best clown gig in town - a regular TV kiddie show, is retiring, and Shakes' arch-nemesis Binky (Tom Kenny), a psychotic passive-aggressive cokehead clown, is slated as his replacement. One night, Mr. Cheese catches Binky and a few rodeo clowns in the back room snorting some nose candy (exclaiming "You clowns are on dope!") Binky beats Mr. Cheese with a bowling pin in a coke-addled frenzy, and decides to frame Shakes (already off the wagon and on the floor) as the murderer!
Now we're in clown-noir territory, as Shakes must evade the police while gathering evidence to clear his name. In the meantime, he even goes incognito, losing his clown dignity in a mime class run by Jerry the Mime (Robin Williams in full schtick gear). There are some draggy scenes involving his odd-couple cop pursuers, but plenty of time to get more beer. Eventually Shakes forces a confession from a rodeo clown, but Binky has kidnapped Judy and has her hostage on live TV, grumpy children forced to watch as he performs a dizzy knife-throwing act for reals. Shakes saves the day and his girl, beating Binky on the set while his pals watch back at the bar. He is now the top clown in town.