You would be forgiven for thinking that director Michael Beach Nichols’ Wrinkles the Clown is yet another horror film capitalizing on the current coulrophobia craze, following the gargantuan box office returns of 2017’s It adaptation. But whereas Pennywise is a fictional character stemming from the mind of Stephen King, Wrinkles the Clown is indeed a real-life person, a party clown who gained worldwide notoriety when he started posting stickers across his hometown of Naples, Florida that featured only his grotesque visage and phone number. You see, Wrinkles is no ordinary clown — parents can hire him to scare their misbehaving children. In fact, it usually doesn’t even require a visit, but simply a call to that goes straight to a gravelly-intoned voicemail message. Michael Beach Nichols’s documentary purports to follow the real Wrinkles, who became an internet sensation following an unsettling Youtube video where he appeared to be hiding under the bed of a sleeping five-year-old girl. Who is the man behind the makeup? What are the moral and ethical implications of the services he is providing? Nichols wants to address these questions, but also much more, and the resultant film becomes scattershot and wildly unfocused for it.
By the time the movie starts following a group of children who have become borderline obsessed with the clown’s online presence—and the effect that internet culture as a whole is having on a generation of adolescents—it’s fair to wonder what the hell Nichols is even attempting here. A 75-minute film should be focused, but this is instead a hodgepodge of talking heads addressing a variety of topics, some seemingly unrelated, intercut with footage of the real-life Wrinkles, face carefully obscured, making TV-dinners in his van. And just to keep everything askew, right as things become maddeningly repetitious, Nichols serves up an Exit Through the Gift Shop-level twist that is supposed to make us question everything we have witnessed. But instead of providing any sort of narrative or thematic clarity, it simply adds — pardon the pun — another wrinkle to the proceedings, little more than a momentary distraction. By the time we get to the film’s laughable final message, it has become clear that Nichols is the one hiding behind a mask, that of a documentarian even remotely interested in any meaningful exploration of his fascinating subject.
Published as part of October 2019’s Before We Vanish.