Review: Outrageous ‘Klown’ delivers shocking laughs and surprising heart

At some point, someone will write the history of this modern “comedy of the uncomfortable,” and when they do, I hope they devote an entire chapter to “Klown.”

It’s been strange watching Drafthouse Films come into focus as a distributor simply because of how long I’ve known Tim League, and how clearly we’re seeing his tastes reflected in the film that they’re picking up for release.  The reason I’m enjoying their work as distributors is the same reason I enjoy their work as exhibitors.  They have a fearlessness that I admire, and any company that would put films like “Four Lions,” “Bullhead,” and “Klown” is a company that I’m willing to trust implicitly.

“Klown” is a feature film version of a Danish comedy series by Mikkel Norgaard, Casper Christensen, and Frank Hvam, and while I’ve never seen the series, that didn’t affect my ability to enjoy the film completely.  It’s self-contained and works as a stand-alone story.  I’m curious to see the show now, especially since it looks like Drafthouse Films is going to be distributing the series on DVD in the US.  The film tells the story of Casper and Frank, friends who have a canoe trip planned, and Casper views the trip as an excuse to get laid, with a stop along the way planned for a one-in-a-lifetime brothel that is run by a friend of theirs. 

Frank, on the other hand, sees the trip as just one more in a long line of events that offer him the potential to be humiliated in a million different ways.  Frank’s struggling with his relationship with Mia (Mia Lyhne), and things become even more complicated when Frank finds out that Mia is pregnant, something she was reluctant to tell him because she’s not sure he’s got any potential as a father.  Frank decides to take his thirteen year old nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) along on the canoe trip even though Casper is livid at the idea of a kid disrupting the “Tour de Pussy,” and even though Frank hasn’t asked Bo’s parents about it, essentially turning his last-ditch effort to bond with the kid into a kidnapping.

Their canoe trip is, to put it lightly, a nightmare.  Casper is such a cheerful degenerate that he inevitably causes problems wherever they stop, and Frank is socially retarded, his own inevitable discomfort only matched by Bo’s discomfort being around these two adults who obviously don’t want to take him along.  Bo’s an awkward kid to begin with, but anyone would be uncomfortable stuck in a canoe with these two.  And while we’ve seen lots of uncomfortable comedy in the last decade or so, “Klown” ratchets things up with a truly horrifying mix of sexually inappropriate behavior and genuine heart, and I’m impressed by how well they pull it off.  No movie that ends with the punchline of this movie should be able to be considered “heartwarming,” and yet…

Technically, the film is shot in the quick zoom semi-documentary style that so many of these comedies are shot in these days, and it bugs me as an affectation, something that is just expected at this point.  “Klown” is hardly the worst offender in that regard, but there’s just this annoying sameness, like there’s a piece of software you buy that does that shake, shake, quick zoom, shake thing that we see everywhere.  There will be a point where we’ll look at films shot like that and we’ll be able to carbon-date them precisely because it’s so distinctly right-this-moment as an aesthetic.

Frank Hvam is a very particular comic presence, frequently a blank, and on the rare occasions he really openly shows an emotion, it’s great punctuation.  He’s the one who can’t believe how horrifying the trip is, while Casper Christensen is more of the force of nature, the unleashed suburban goat, the one whose libido frequently serves to hone in on the absolute most potential trouble.  The young man who plays Bo deserves a medal for the way he handles himself even in the film’s most insane moments.  The long-suffering ladies in their lives have only a few scenes, but they’re important scenes, and they play their parts just right.  Mia is not sure she trusts Frank, and each fresh disappointment seems to leave a serious mark.  He has an encounter with her mother that is both medically unsafe and morally suspect, and that’s before the entire canoe trip.  He’s already on final notice before he even begins, and when he realizes just how bad things are getting, he really does crack, and deservedly so.  And Iben (Iben Hjejle, who you might recognize as John Cusack’s ex in “High Fidelity) suspects that Casper cheats, but has no idea just how much of a pervert he is.

“Klown” is certainly not a comedy I’d recommend to everyone.  You’ve got to know what you’re in for.  If you like that feeling that comes when you’re laughing involuntarily even as your skin crawls at the thought of being trapped in the situation you’re watching, and you’re willing to let a film go anywhere in search of those dark, dark laughs, then you can either see “Klown” theatrically starting this weekend or via a number of VOD options, including a fairly new service called Distrify, which is sort of like an Amazon Affiliates program where the site that embeds the Distrify link actually gets a cut of each VOD rental that the readers click on.  It’s an interesting idea that blurs the line between curation and cashing in, and just one more sign of the way Drafthouse Films is thinking outside the standard model of independent releasing.  Looking forward is more important in today’s shifting landscape of how people find and consume content, and when they’re making choices as creatively bold as “Klown” and as commercially experimental as Distrify or their subscription service, it’s obvious Drafthouse Films has eyes firmly set ahead.

“Klown” is available all sorts of ways right now.