The Danish television series Klovn (“Clown”) ran for six seasons, from 2005 to 2009, and accumulated about sixty episodes during this run. It was an incredibly popular show in Denmark and throughout Scandanavia. The series spawned a feature film, Klown (2010), which has now made its way to the US thanks to Drafthouse Films.
Klown presents an admittedly difficult scenario for a US distributor and for American audiences. Word-based comedy typically encounters difficulty traversing across languages and cultures (hell, some Americans are even turned off by the idiosyncrasies of British humor despite the (mostly) shared language); there’s a reason the arthouse is typically associated with snooty Euro-drama. Add this to the fact that Klown is a based on a long-running series with a core existing audience in the country in which was made that is virtually invisible in the US. Put these factors together and you’ve got a uniquely difficult film to promote.
Despite these obstructions, which are by no means the fault of the film itself, Klown is well versed in the language of comedy. The film’s comedic set-pieces are executed with an undeniably honed sense of expert timing, and the emotional arc of the film is thankfully crafted without any regard for the sentimental aspects of the human condition, avoiding the rut that so many domestic comedies reduce themselves to in their final acts.
Yet there’s something about Klown that just didn’t work or connect. On the one hand, this lack could be attributed to the factors of language barrier and cultural difference which limit the export of transcontinental comedies in the first place; a viewer not from Denmark or unfamiliar with the Danish language could easily miss nuanced intonations, beats, and keys into cultural logic that would otherwise be essential to Klown’s comedic affect. On the other hand, there are certain things about Klown that are overtly disengaging, like several predictable situational hijinks and a main character too dumb to be empathetic in opposition to his douchebag best friend.
Klown follows the show’s basic structure by focusing on the misadventures of socially inept Frank (Frank Hvam) and his promiscuous fair-weather best friend Casper (Casper Christensen). Klovn is a show with an “everyday” quality to its humor that is not unlike Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The lead comedians play loose versions of their actual selves and imbue the series with an improvisatory quality, turning seemingly ordinary social circumstances into absurd comic situations (often with Frank and Casper as the butt of the joke opposite their significant others, played by Mia Lynhe and Iben Hjejle, respectively).
However, a feature film must raise the stakes to justify its running time if not its less immediately accessible venue of exhibition. In Klown, Frank finds out that Mia is pregnant and considering an abortion because she doesn’t find any father potential in Frank. Frank and Mia babysit their barely pre-pubescent nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen), and when Frank rather uncourageously abandons Bo during a nighttime robbery of Frank’s home, Mia decides it’s time for a break. In order to prove his worthiness as a father, the earnest but woefully stupid Frank kidnaps Bo and forces the boy to join he and Christian on a canoe trip devised solely for sex-hunting. The trip, needless to say, hardly goes as planned.
There are a couple of brilliant comic set-ups in this movie, most of which benefit from Hvam’s performance. Hvam is able to depict a special type of innocent social blindness brilliantly. He wants to make everybody happy at the most immediate moment, and rarely thinks about the consequences of those efforts beyond his present actions. It’s not the hard-R circumstances that Frank finds himself in which make Klown funny, but the ways in which Frank willingly but joylessly participates in Christian’s awful ideas. You likely know people exactly like the mismatched Christian and Frank: the guy who demands that his friends tag along to help fulfill his selfish needs, and the poor sap who’s a bit too willing to do so.
Frank and Christian persist in this perpetual high school dynamic which lays the ground for a great deal of comic potential, but eventually wears thin and brings up too many questions that impede the humor. In 30-minute increments, Frank is just as much a failure but the stakes are rather low. In a feature-length film, however, it’s easy to lose any desire to see Frank win when this grown man can’t help but make the absolute worst decision at every possible moment. Situational comedies need some believability to be effective, and too many gags in Klown feel like punchlines whose set-ups were engineered in reverse (notably an early gross-out gag involving Frank’s mother-in-law and a still montage at the end of the film whose shock value rivals, and perhaps exceeds, a similar set-up in The Hangover), resulting in a character whose cumulative actions eventually make him appear too dumb to care much about what unfortunate scenario he finds himself in next.
However, I do commend Klown for the relationship it establishes and explores between Frank and Bo. One gets a definite sense that Frank used to be exactly like the much-bullied, socially awkward Bo, and this juxtaposition provides Frank pathos absent in the rest of the film. The difference, of course, is that Frank is an adult, and Klown makes it difficult to get a sense of how Frank established a sustainable enough adulthood to fuck it up so badly. As Frank haplessly attempts to prove his worthiness to Mia, the question begs itself too often: “Why is she with him in the first place?”
The Upside: Frank Hvam possesses credible comic instincts and some moments the audacious Klown are laugh-out-loud funny.
The Downside: Very few comic beats, especially the most explicit and envelope-pushing ones, feel earned and un-telegraphed.
On the Side: Todd Philllips and Danny McBride have bought the rights to remake Klown, a film whose taste (for better or worse) fits Phillips’s approach to frathouse comedy. I can’t see McBride playing either character, and several of the film’s situations depend on culturally specific aspects of Denmark (specifically laws about prostitution and the age of consent) that may not translate well. However, Ed Helms would be a perfect Frank (though there’s no word on whether or not he’d be in the remake).
You can watch an episode of the original series Klovn, courtesy of Drafthouse Films. The episode was co-written by Lars von Trier because of course it was.
Klown opens this Friday at the following theaters: New York – Village East, Los Angeles – The Cinefamily, Austin – Alamo Drafthouse