The very best independent films somehow avoid the pitfalls of a low budget–showcasing great performances or beautiful cinematography against all odds. Punching the Clown achieves something nearly as impressive: itworks despite its limitations. Writer and lead actor Henry Philllips has crafted a pseudo-autobiography so genuine and likable that the sometimes stiff acting and unglamorous aesthetic serve as essential elements of the film’s ramshackle charm.
Phillips plays, and is, a down-to-earth satirical folk singer who often has trouble describing exactly what it is he does (“it’s like folk music–well, uh, not like real folk music…”) but is nevertheless compelled to do it. Tired of the unreceptive audiences and meager pay on the road, Henry decides to crash with his brother, an L.A. actor who specializes in children’s birthday parties, and see what kind of success awaits him. He becomes a regular and favorite at “Expresso Yourself”‘s Open-Mic Night and surprisingly, due to a fairly hilarious misunderstanding, Henry finds himself picked up by a label. What follows is an examination of life and loss on the lower rungs of success, as well as a very successful comedy.
It’s difficult to say exactly how little a stretch the role is for Henry Phillips, but he carries the film well. Clown depends entirely on Phillips’ portrayal of a shy, unimposing man with a deadly sense of humor and command of stage. Henry has no pretensions about his life’s calling–and may or may not analogize it to masturbation in the film’s title–but he, tellingly, has well-deserved pride in what he does and is simply incapable of compromising his vision. And, though Henry might see his integrity and commitment to his dream as stubbornness, the audience sees it as heroic and inspiring.
The rest of the cast ranges from amateurish to great, with the main cast almost uniformly great. Matthew Walker succeeds as Henry’s pathetic brother; Guilford Adams owns the role of Fabian, the man who signs Henry; Ellen Ratner is a riot as Henry’s agent. Mark Cohen is impressive in a brief appearance as the more famous, far less funny, parody singer Stupid Joe (hit single: “Let’s Get Guitar-ted In Here”).
Though Clown is presented as a narrative feature, and has all the contrivances and dramatic tics of a narrative feature, is has more in common with the documentary and mockumentary set. The film plays out as a series of vignettes or staged jokes that succeed for being satirical as well as completely identifiable. Once or twice, a scene threatens to collapse under its own laborious execution, but the goodhearted cleverness that permeates Clown acts as a safety net for these occasional clunkers. In particular, the central conflict of the film, involving a rumor getting passed around LA, is sometimes funny but smacks of one of Henry’s more ludicrous story-songs. Clown is much better when grounded in the minutiae of Henry’s life.
Phillips’ scriptsometimes threatens to fall into melodrama or cliche, but each time he slyly dodges convention. For example, the film is ostensibly framed as a story discussed between Henry and a radio DJ over the airwaves. While not that exciting of a structure, the conceit is used later on to create one of the film’s more surprising and poignant moments. This is to say, Clown can surely find a dedicated fan-base (of which this reviewer will belong), but itis so slyly unconventional that fans might not be sure that they love the film until they’ve reached the credits.