Apocalypse Clown is a bemusing but often amusing comedy that presents a couple of outlandish science-fiction premises right from the start.
One, that nefarious forces within the Irish government control weather events that work like an EMP blast and The Rapture rolled into one. And two, that Ireland is the centre of a whole universe of active and inactive clowns.
The opening narration over a lavish computer-generated cosmos tells of a cruel and unjust universe that tramples ambition and crushes the human spirit. In the face of such cosmic chaos, all we can do is laugh, apparently.
The narrator – who begins with a sort of Werner Herzog impression, before settling into a more convincing exaggerated French accent – is Jean DuCocque (Barry McGovern), celebrated clown and the owner of the world’s foremost clown college, which is improbably located in the Irish midlands.
This is one of the many sight and situation gags that make up Apocalypse Clown’s surprisingly robust worldview.
It doesn’t exactly strive for the rigorous coherence or verisimilitude of bigger, more expensive genre entries. Instead there’s a clear sense that the jokes are leading the plot over anything else.
They run from cheap and bawdy wordplay to more elaborate setpieces and callbacks. And like a colourful rope of handkerchiefs pulled from a polka-dotted sleeve, the jokes seem to be unlimited in number.
Just as real-life clowning relies on a certain amount of sleight of hand and playful misdirection, Apocalypse Clown is always zipping from one whacky scenario to another at speed.
Scrutinise the frame enough to spot the gag sign or admire a pratfall but not enough to worry about the particulars of the filmmaking. Blink and you’ll miss it, think and the wheel comes off the unicycle.
This heavy use of vignetting gives Apocalypse Clown an episodic feel. Overwritten and underwritten at the same time somehow, scenes are crammed full of action but the plot zigs and zags in all directions.
Although, the number and variety of scenarios mean that Apocalypse Clown’s ensemble all have sufficient time to shine as they embark on their higgledy-piggledy journey back to Dublin hoping to reveal the truth about the solar flares to the rest of the world.
The principal characters are all variations on the failed and tragic clown (Is there any other kind?) A Fiat 500 full of pagliacci, they carry with them the marks of desperation beneath their make-up-caked faces and painted grins.
Bobo (David Earl), is a recently laid-off children’s ward clown, Funzo (Natalie Palamides), a volatile street clown, and Pepe (Fionn Foley), a mime who has taken it upon himself to carry on DuCoque’s legacy in the aftermath of the film’s apocalypse.
The unlikely and uneasy troupe is forced into an alliance with Bobo’s arch nemesis, the disgraced children’s TV clown The Great Alphonso (Ivan Kaye), and frustrated journalist Jenny Malone (Amy De Bhrún), who lives in the shadow of her late mother, and suffers the renewed advances of Bobo, who she slept with at a party some years ago.
Of the main cast, Kaye and Palamides are the standout performances. Kaye plays Alphonso, a walking Who’s Who of minor celebrities and problematic TV personalities, with a bottomless appetite for scenery chewing. Every word out of his mouth has one syllable more than it should.
Palamides’s Funzo appears like The Asylum direct-to-video version of Pennywise the Clown. Her unplaceable European accent and frequent outbursts of violence make for some of the funnier, and in the latter stages of the film, surprisingly touching moments.
George Kane, Apocalypse Clown’s director, and one of four writers on the film, has worked mainly in TV sitcoms and brings the rhythm and economics of that form to the big screen.
The production values are smart enough. Kane has a good eye for contrasting the bright colours of the clowns with the greys and moss greens of the wasteland vistas.
For the most part, this feels like a small production, and so the jokes do propel the narrative. But the jokes are also so rapid and throwaway as to feel overwhelming at times.
Few gags are allowed room to breathe. One punchline rolls into another and another and another. It’s easy to become unmoored from the characters and their goals.
The feeling is that we’ve watched 22 episodes of a TV series squished into 100 minutes. But like The Great Alphonso’s pie-throwing torture device seen at the end of the film, a lack of consistant quality is made up for by sheer quantity and impact.
For every miss there’s another near-miss seconds later, and seconds after that, a direct hit at the funny bone. Just as Kane and company appear to be flailing about in free fall they pull off a tumble.
The winner of Best Irish Film at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, it’s clear that Apocalypse Clown is best enjoyed with a crowd.
Extra bodies would go some way in absorbing the hundreds of punchlines in a film that is more than content to beat the laughter out of the viewer.
Besides, in the world of clowning, tears of laughter and tears of pain look the same with make-up on.
Apocalypse Clown is in cinemas now.