Does anyone still think clowns are funny? I never understood the appeal. A traditional clown is, well, lame. Shakes the Clown is the only one who has ever made me laugh, and that’s more to do with the hilarity of alcoholism than the nature of his vocation. What’s so funny about big shoes (dangerous) or a cramming a lot of people into a small car (diseases)?
Take away their sanity and hand them a weapon, however, and now we’re on to something. From the Joker to Killer Klowns to Pennywise and back to the Joker, the Demented Clown has a proud cinematic tradition. Director, Álex de la Iglesia (“Gordos”), adds to the illustrious list with the unhinged clowns of “The Last Circus.” While his film has its share of narrative issues, Javier and Sergio are decent examples of clowns to be reckoned with.
“The Last Circus” opens in 1937 Madrid, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, as the rebel militia compulsorily recruits a group of circus performers mid-show. There is no time to change clothes and besides, “a clown with a machete will scare the s**t out of [the enemy]”, they wager. The harebrained scheme works and, before long, a Happy Clown is the last one standing, splattered with the blood of the Nationals. It’s an intense, gory, and hilarious scene, shot with plenty of Tarantino-esque slow motion. Barnum and Bailey take note: Hand-to-hand combat is the most entertaining clown context.
Despite the battle’s outcome, the rebels do not win the war, and the Happy Clown is sent to a prison labor camp where he is eventually executed. Before he dies, he tells his son, Javier, that should he follow in his father’s footsteps, he must be a Sad Clown; for his life has been nothing but tragedy. Oh, and while he’s at it, a little paternal avenging would be nice. Thirty-five years later, as the Franco era winds down, the boy has become a sad, humorless fat man who, despite his setbacks, is still determined to join the family business.
He finds work under a sociopath, a Happy Clown named Sergio, and develops an instant attraction to Sergio’s girlfriend, Natalia, an acrobat with some mental issues of her own. Javier is the only one brave enough to stand up to Sergio and, when he tries to rescue Natalia from her abusive relationship, she claims to be grateful. But, to Javier’s frustration, she always ends up back in the arms of her assailant. One can’t resolve such a cuckoo love triangle without a little bloodshed. Thus, the film devolves into an extensive battle of Sad Clown vs. Happy Clown in a contest of who is more f****d up.
Despite all the lovely clown carnage, I’m still not sure whether I liked “The Last Circus.” Obviously, we can’t expect a story like this to be pragmatic, but as the rivalry between Sergio and Javier escalates, some of the things that happen are downright preposterous. It’s hard to imagine the circumstances that would lead an adult human to becoming Franco’s lead hunting dog, but Javier’s boneheaded notions get him there.
Natalia is as troublesome as she is beautiful and it’s not entirely clear why Javier goes to such extremes for her. As they carry on their “affair,” she consistently places them in situations in which Sergio could easily find them out. It’s also unclear whether Natalia is trying to set Javier up or she really is that stupid. She’s either a femme fatale or the true villain of the film. Either way, she’s kind of shitty.
So as far as likeable characters, that leaves Sergio, the Happy Clown who knocks his girlfriend unconscious at a dinner party and then commands everyone to order dessert. His violent streak notwithstanding, he’s the most talented of the three. Plus, since his girlfriend is actually trying to cheat on him every chance she gets, his ire is somewhat justified. But he’s also one mean son of a bitch and he certainly takes his wrath too far.
As Sergio and Javier’s dealings become more grotesque, so do their faces, until they’re basically two Batman villains minus the common enemy. But “The Last Circus” is at its best when its clowns rampage murderously. Fortunately, there’s rampaging aplenty and it culminates in an exciting resolution involving circus powers. The film could be shorter and slightly less pretentious and the characters could be more empathetic, but as far as Demented Clown movies go, “The Last Circus” is a fine specimen.