This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
A confession to begin with – I’m not altogether sure what the creative intention behind Vulgar was. It’s either an astonishingly black comedy that fails to be funny, or a bizarre drama with an anachronistic enough tone to spoil the dramatic effect. It’s certainly different, remarkable, original even, but it’s not exactly good. Or wholesome family entertainment, for that matter.
Will (Brian O’Hallaran) seems to be in a slump. His gainful employment as a children’s party entertainer isn’t bringing in enough dough-ray-me to cover the rent of his slum-esque home and his contributions to the old folk’s home where his unimaginably awful mother is domiciled. Flappy the clown is going nowhere fast, but Will hits upon an interesting idea trawling through the classifieds. Setting himself up as Vulgar, a clown stripper for stag parties, he makes an appearance in high heels and stockings as a gag to surprise the groom-to-be before the main silicone-enhanced event. It’s novel, we’ll grant him that.
Things don’t go entirely to plan on the first attempt, what with the clubbing over the head and the brutal raping and all. Taken against his will by the patriarch of the Fanelli family, Ed (Jerry Lewkowitz) and his two idiot sons Frankie (Ethan Suplee) and Gino (Matthew Maher), this has quite the traumatic effect on the lad. Deciding not to call the police, he forgets the incident as best he can. After a seemingly random, uncharacteristic spot of have-a-go heroism saves a young girl from her gun-wielding father, the resultant media exposure sees Flappy propelled to prime time telly with the riches that entails.
Papa Fanelli doesn’t fail to notice Flappy’s ascent, and cranks out the particularly vulgar home movie made during the aforementioned unwanted bum lovin’. William faces a few choices; either pay up to keep the tape out of the public eye, which would destroy his kiddy-friendly image without any guarantee of not being bled for more money later, or take revenge, which doesn’t fit with Will’s general overriding character trait of ‘doormat’.
I’m looking at the above wondering if it’s technically a spoiler, as that’s, oooh, ninety percent of all that happens. I’m also left wondering if the primary purpose of Vulgar was to secure a top ten Google ranking for phrases like “CLOWN RAPE”, although that would seem to be a niche market of little use for pay-per-click advertising. The tone of the film is utterly variable. There are moments clearly intended (though failing) to be funny, such as Ed Fanelli taking lip from his six year old daughter for being completely pathetic, yet moments like the rape scene play more like a horror film. Sadly a horror film more along the lines of House of 1000 Corpses than The Ring (or Deliverance, to make the obvious, obligatory reference), but that’s what you’ll get in films where almost all of the budget was spent on greasepaint.
Vulgar wears its bargain basement, zero budget Indy filmmaking feel like a medal of honour, particularly the set of Flappy’s multimillion dollar making T.V. show with set dressings seemingly created by the six year-olds in the studio audiences. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing I’m not exactly sure, but it’s certainly a thing. This isn’t the place to look for glossy, high production value film-making, but you wouldn’t truly expect that from a View Askew production.
Much like Kevin Smith’s first View Askew output, the similarly Brian O’Halloran starring Clerks, this was a production begged, borrowed or stolen. While this served Smith well, it’s only because he wrote a damned amusing script which overpowered the suspect performances and baseline production values. Vulgar can only boast the suspect performances and baseline production values, the scripting being haphazard at best. Director/Writer/Actor Bryan Johnston may well have gone on record as wanting to produce something that defies categorisation, but I’m not sure he’s considered whether defying categorisation is a worthy aim to, er, aim for. Life may well have it’s tragedies, comic moments and every emotion inbetween but they also have a lifetime to unfold over. Eighty minutes isn’t really a long time, and in all but the most tragic of cases significantly less than a lifetime. It’s about enough time to make a funny film, or a tragic film, but certainly in this case it’s not long enough to do both without each element utterly undermining the other.
Apparently prompting mass walkouts on it’s Somewhere-or-other Festival debut, too much should not be read into this. Festival crowds always seem somewhat highly strung. However, the only interesting thing that Vulgar brings to the table is its use of homosexual rape as a plot device, which becomes something of a neck mounted albatross. Like pretty much everything where the abuse overshadows the characters and the remnants of the plot, it never winds up saying anything more profound than ‘rape is bad’. I’d already found that point on my moral compass without the help of a movie, thanks.
Without labouring the point any more, Vulgar just isn’t good enough to get away with it’s manifold flaws. O’Halloran doesn’t have quite the presence needed to hold centre stage and be truly convincing in any of the roles Johnston has written for him, and Johnston himself is at fault for trying to be all things to all people and winding up being pretty much nothing to damn near everyone. To be fair, at least it’s an interesting concept for a flick. The odds on anyone remembering much from the glossy big budget numbers thrown at us lately (hello, Sahara!) a year or so after the fact are long indeed, but you’ll probably remember ‘that film with the clown rape’ for quite some time. Whether that’s a state of affairs you’ll be happy with is another matter entirely.