There used to be such a thing as the "midnight movie." These were films that played the late, late showing in theaters to appreciative cult audiences. They were usually somewhat explicit in nature, either via their sex and violence content or just by their offbeat subject matter. By all counts, they reveled in their own outrageous shock value. Midnight movies don't exist much anymore, but every once in a while you find a picture that embodies their spirit. Such a film is Vulgar, which comes from View Askew Productions (run by filmmaker Kevin Smith and producer Scott Mosier). It was written and directed by Bryan Johnson who, if you are a rabid fan of Smith's movies, will be more familiarly known to you as "Steve-Dave." What Johnson has created is a true piece of cinema bizarro. Imagine John Waters remaking Deliverance starring Bozo the Clown, and that's Vulgar.
Brian O'Halloran (Dante in Clerks) plays Will Carlson, a children's birthday party clown whose home life is anything but funny. He lives in a dingy apartment that he can barely pay for. His mother lives in a nursing home. She's about as verbally abusive as they come, criticizing and humiliating her son at every turn. Will tries to meet her expectations, but nothing will do short of dropping dead.
To make a little extra money on the side, Will comes up with a new idea. He will put on fishnet stockings, high heels, and a bustier that lets his ass hang out. Under this guise, he will be known as Vulgar the Clown. People will hire him for bachelor parties as a "gag stripper" to prank the groom before the real stripper shows up. Will's best friend Syd (Johnson) thinks it's a stupid idea. He turns out to be right. Vulgar's first job is bogus. When he arrives at a hotel room expecting a wild party, he is instead greeted by a pervert named Ed Fanelli (Jerry Lewkowitz) and his two sons, Frankie (Ethan Supplee) and Gino (Matt Maher). They beat Vulgar, tie him up, and rape him.
Wait a minute, you're probably thinking. A movie about clown rape? Yep, that's what Vulgar is, alright. Maybe that idea offends you; rape is certainly not funny. Or maybe you hate clowns and think this sounds like the feel-good movie of the year. What I want to make clear is that the film doesn't trivialize sexual abuse. Will confides in Syd and has an emotional breakdown in the process. What happened to him is so unthinkable - so heinous - that his world will never be the same. The rape scene is unquestionably disturbing (as it should be); the aftermath is not played for laughs, but for painful reality.
A short time later, Will (back in normal Flappy the Clown mode) is walking down the street when he comes across a hostage situation. The cops have surrounded a house in which a man is holding a gun to his daughter's head. Armed with a new screw-it-all attitude, Will sneaks into the house and disarms the guy, thereby saving the little girl's life. His heroism turns him into a media celebrity, and he is subsequently given his own children's show by a TV producer (Kevin Smith). Will tries to turn his tragedy into triumph. Then the phone rings. It's Fanelli, attempting to blackmail him with a videotape of the assault. The story winds its way to a fateful repeat confrontation between abuser and victim.
Vulgar is nominally a comedy and it does have some laughs. It also has tough subject matter, so therefore it is understandable that some people hated it. This is part and parcel of being a midnight movie. I think the film is misunderstood. Its detractors wrote it off as a sick joke. Personally, I don't think it's a joke at all. Johnson is trying to tell a story about karma, particularly about the way one guy needs to confront his tragic abuse head-on before he can truly move forward again. The fact that Johnson tells his story in an over-the-top way is only a matter of style. Vulgar actually got me thinking about how people find the strength within themselves to make life good again after sexual abuse.
It helps that O'Halloran gives a raw, heartfelt performance. He's not always trying to be funny; the scene in which Will talks about the incident is searing in its portrayal of human vulnerability. O'Halloran cries, he screams, he rages against the world. As the story progresses, we see him heal. Rather than maintaining that rage, he puts his energies into doing what he loves - being a clown - and finds the strength within himself to stop giving a shit what his mother thinks of him. This is one of the most intense and compelling performances I've seen this year.
Vulgar is not a perfect film, and it is certainly not the best film ever made about sexual abuse or rape. At times, the actors seem burdened by the verbosity of Johnson's script, and the ending feels a bit too karmically convenient. Even so, something in this movie hit a nerve with me. I know there will be people who absolutely abhor Vulgar. I will argue something else: for whatever flaws it may have, this is a work that is original, disturbing, and - most of all - challenging. Jokes about male rape (especially in prison) are used in films all the time. No one laughs about rape when it happens to a woman, but when it happens to a guy, everybody thinks its funny. By having the victim be a clown, Vulgar challenges the audience's concepts of what it means to be raped, sexually abused, or otherwise violated. It can happen to anyone regardless of gender, and it has the power to devastate whomever it happens to.
I like the funny parts of the movie as well, but I think Bryan Johnson has a little more on his mind than just being a jokester. He wants to explore the darker regions of life. That's the kind of thing that turns a lot of people off, and Vulgar is certainly not a film for everybody. But viewers who are willing to try something daring may agree with me that the plot is a fascinating juxtaposition of silliness and morbidity. If Johnson maintains his fearless streak, he could really be a filmmaker to watch.
( out of four)
Vulgar is unrated but includes disturbing sexual violence, some shootings and strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat