Wrinkles the Clown

For about fifty minutes, I was sure that I really didn't like Wrinkles the Clown. This is a documentary about the titular figure, a Florida clown who can be hired to scare unruly children for a fee. His viral YouTube video, which you can watch right here, was the impetus for his controversial business. My initial instinct – and it might be yours, as well – is that only a terrible person would do this, regardless of how intriguing the mindset behind it may be, so why give their behavior attention?

That feeling was reinforced by the man himself. Wrinkles asks that his unmasked face not be shown onscreen. He's clearly an older guy, and he lives in a ramshackle van that he drives from town to town. He guzzles beer, visits strip clubs. If the words “sicko” or “pervert” enter your mind, it's totally understandable. This fellow seems to be the textbook definition of sleazy.

Interspersed with his frustratingly un-enlightening commentary are interviews with curious children who have called his phone number (publicized via stickers he leaves in public places wherever he roams), parents who have threatened to give him a ring when their kids misbehave, and experts in evil clown lore. Director Michael Beach Nichols spends more time on these people than on probing the central figure of his film, a fact that proves maddening.

Then something remarkable happens. At that 50-minute mark, we're given a piece of information we didn't have, and Wrinkles the Clown abruptly reinvents itself. What starts off as a muddled portrait of a seemingly bad person reveals that it's actually something else altogether – namely, an astute investigation into both the enduring cultural fascination with evil clowns and the way that viral videos feed into a psychological need to confront that which is bizarre, unexplainable, or scary.

To tell you specifically how that happens would be to rob the movie of its impact. The important thing is that you're forced to re-evaluate everything you've already seen and examine it in a new light. In the process, viewers may well learn a little something about themselves by analyzing their own reactions to Wrinkles. Nichols' approach to the documentary form is inventive. He knows telling the story conventionally wouldn't work; it requires the idiosyncratic method. Once you know what you're actually watching, all of it makes sense in a way that's quite satisfying.

Wrinkles the Clown takes you completely by surprise, saying something worthwhile about how people generate and respond to fear. Turns out I liked it after all.

out of four

Wrinkles the Clown is unrated, but contains strong language and some nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 18 minutes.