Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Wrinkles the Clown: He’s Not the Crying on the Inside Kind

Poor Emmett Kelly must be rolling in his grave. The beloved circus performer would be heartsick to see how clowns are now linked to horror movies, creepy flash-mobs, and weird lurking incidents. This clown deliberately set out to be provocative, but he may very well have inspired less thoughtful imitators. The viral sensation tells his story—sort of—in Michael Beach Nichols’ documentary Wrinkles the Clown, which releases today on DVD.

Maybe you saw the YouTube video of Wrinkles sliding out of a trundle drawer under a young girl’s bed and then ominously standing over her. You will definitely see it several times before Nichols’ 75-minute film is through. Scaring kids became Wrinkles’ thing. In fact, he advertised his services as a tool for parental discipline. Basically, he would frighten them straight. Apparently, there was a demand for this in South Florida (living up to its rep for strangeness). As more videos of his handiwork dropped on YouTube, his notoriety spread.

Whatever you think of Wrinkles (he actually has some rather thoughtful and nuanced things to say), he is clearly a self-styled trickster with no malice in his heart, rather than a psychopath or even a nasty practical joker. On the other hand, some subsequent reports of real-life evil clown sightings had a truly menacing vibe.

It is easy to understand why Nichols was fascinated with Wrinkles, but the resulting film is decidedly uneven and often rather dull. There are an awful lot of YouTube clips in Wrinkles’ doc, but far too many of them do not even feature Wrinkles. Instead they feature kids calling Wrinkles, talking about Wrinkles, or making their own Wrinkles-inspired videos. Granted, working with online videos presents some cinematic challenges, but Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare presented that kind of material in ways that were clever and completely absorbing. Not so for poor Wrinkles.

As a result, the first forty minutes or so are unfocused and pretty dull. At that point, the film takes a surprise turn and starts to get interesting, but it is hard to not resent everything that came before, because it really just wasted our time. There is no question Wrinkles’ analysis of his own legend is the most intriguing part of the film. That is why a fictional interlude in which Wrinkles abducts a small child seems so out of place and unfair to the titular clown himself.

A filmmaker like Ascher could probably make an amazing film about Wrinkles. Unfortunately, the film Nichols made is poorly constructed, terribly edited, and features several highly dubious aesthetic choices. Let’s be clear, this is totally a judgement on the filmmaking and not on the subject. Not recommended, Wrinkles the Clown releases today on DVD.