by Jon Bastian
A little something for the evil-hearted clown in all of us.
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I first stuck Vulgar in the ol’ DVD machine as a distraction, because Tuesday night TV really, really sucks ass. Hell, why not? I snagged it out of the real-cheap used bin at the local video store, and Kevin Smith was involved. But a funny thing happened. A few minutes into the film, I found myself compelled to watch it, and it kept my face sucked to the screen until the end. Not an easy movie to categorize, Vulgar switches gears more times than a trucker climbing Pike’s Peak, and yet manages to hold together as a coherent piece until the very end.
If I had to give Vulgar a capsule review, I’d have to say that it feels like Deliverance meets Pulp Fiction by way of the bastard child of Gregg Araki and Pier Palo Passolini — all meant as high compliment. Veering from sentimental to edgy in a single breath, it’s quite unlike any other film I’ve seen. It isn’t for the easily offended or the squeamish, but the pay-off is worth it for those willing to take the ride.
The capsule version: Vulgar tells the tale of one Will Carlson (Brian O’Halloran), a birthday party clown who’s considered a big failure by everyone from punks in the street to his own mother (a wonderfully ungrateful Debra Karr.) When he finally has a… well, interesting idea for a new venue in which to display his talents and escape his world of poverty, his first attempt turns into a disastrous encounter with the world’s creepiest family since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — Ed Fanelli (Jerry Kewkowitz) and his sons, Frankie (Ethan Suplee) and Gino (Matthew Maher). I won’t detail what happens here, but suffice it to say that it’s an event that changes Will’s life forever, and leaves him so emotionally scarred that he’s barely able to confess it to his best friend, Syd (Bryan Johnson, who also wrote and directed and, for once, was not wrong to cast himself in a major role). A chance re-encounter with a former client leads Will to an action that will catapult him to fame. Suddenly, his old life of poverty is gone — but his trip into the limelight also brings his past rushing back, and now he has to deal with unpleasant truths and old ghosts. Whether he’ll be the passive fool we first meet or a changed man of action is the crux of the biscuit, and the question that propels us through the latter parts of the film.
Make no mistake, Vulgar is not a Hollywood film by a longshot. In fact, it was even rejected by no less than five major indie film festivals — said letters of rejection being an hilarious bonus on the DVD. Moments in this film are more disturbing than anything in Silence of the Lambs or Hannibal — particularly the (offscreen) results of a sequence following Ed Fanelli’s announcement, “This is how I kiss,” accompianied by a blow-torch. And the acting is never played for less than keeps. Brian O’Halloran, better known as Dante Hicks in all five of Kevin Smith’s ViewAskew films, turns in a brilliant performance here, especially in a wrenching sequence after his encounter with the Fanellis. I never thought I’d be able to sympathize with a movie clown, ever — but he managed to make me do it.
Also notable is Lewkowitz in what is apparently his only screen appearance as the menacing, demented Ed(wina) Fanelli. Imagine the bastard child of William Devane and the Smoking Man (Ed Davis) from X-Files, and you approach about one-tenth the creepiness that Lewkowitz manages to exude onscreen.
Most credit, though, should go to Bryan Johnson, who manages to create an enigmatic, very different, very twisted script that never defies real-world logic while keeping its characters emotionally consistent. Although painted as losers in the opening, we empathize completely with Will and Syd by the end of the first act, precisely because their relationship and their actions are rooted in the real world.
The end result is a compelling, disturbing and yet very real film that draws you in without warning and holds you until the last frame. It feels like nothing else in the ViewAskew universe, and yet is true to the Kevin Smith spirit nonetheless. And for you fans of the K-Man, we get both Smith, as a TV producer, and Jason Mewes as the strung-out Tuott the Basshead, a cameo that just proves he really is an actor, and not just this cute guy with great hair. (Memo to Jason: come out, come out, wherever you are. I’m sure NewLine will hire a raft of lawyers to get you out of that legal trouble in New Jersey, and you’re too good to be deprived a career in film because of some pissant regulations in the “Garden” State. Just don’t waive extradition, but do hole up in Hollywood, puh-lease?)
Other than that… Vulgar is not for everyone, but if you like the works of Araki or Passolini, or like films that pull quick-changes of tone and mood and sucker you into following them, then give this one a look. Yes, Vulgar is a very dark movie — but it’s also, oddly, a very hopeful one. Something that speaks to the evil clown living within all of us.
Jon Bastian is a stage, screen and TV writer, and a resident and native of Los Angeles.
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