ZERO STARS/**** Image C+ Sound B+ Extras A
starring Brian Christopher O'Halloran, Jerry Lewkowitz, Matthew Maher, Ethan Suplee
written and directed by Bryan Johnson
by Walter Chaw Beginning as Shakes the Clown and segueing into I Spit on Your Grave before finally settling on Death to Smoochy, the discordant, hideously unpleasant Vulgar is the kind of puerile vanity piece that gives exploitation and egotism bad names. Produced by Kevin Smith and seeking to be a creation mythology for Smith's View Askew mascot (just another example of Smith overestimating the inherent interest in his cult of personality), the picture is the hyphenate debut for Smith crony Bryan Johnson, making Smith, along the way, just the next nepotistic "Happy Madison" pinhead king of diminished returns.
Flappy (Brian O'Halloran) is a put-upon Yellow Pages clown who gets ridiculed by his foul, nursing-home-bound mother and all manner of neighbourhood wags. Seeking to metastasize his floundering career, Flappy decides to be a "blue" clown, dons dominatrix gear, redubs himself "Vulgar," and wanders into a seedy motel--which is, of course, not a great idea. A Last House on the Left gang-rape later and Flappy is wandering around in a daze, during which he breaks up a domestic hostage situation, saving a little girl and getting himself a job hosting a children's television show in the process. But the rapists have video and decide to extort the clown who, frankly, has had enough.
Vulgar, needless to say, is awful. It starts as a farce, becomes exploitive, and ends as a satire of farces and exploitation films. That's right, it's three movies, one of them openly disdainful of the other two and neither of the three having any business sharing space. Vulgar isn't vulgar so much as base and arrogant. Like any movie that Kevin Smith might have written and directed, the film is self-indulgent and ugly to look at with a sense of scandal that's out of proportion with the actual amount of scandal the picture inspires. Its ambition exceeds the ability and wit of the filmmakers, and what's more offensive than a bushel of Meir Zarchi, Nacho Cerda, and Hideshi Hino exploitation flicks about the Sixties sex-hysteria reel that is Vulgar is its elitist mean streak.*
Lions Gate brings Vulgar to DVD in an anamorphic widescreen presentation matted to 1.78:1 transferred from a slightly scarred 16mm source that is soft on vibrancy but passable all the same. (R- and unrated versions are available; I received the latter (sold as the "theatrical" edition) and am unfamiliar with the cuts made to achieve the former, but Vulgar in its R-rated form is three minutes shorter.) Black level and shadow detail are both pretty bad, with most night scenes consisting of ill-defined lumps and murky movements. The Dolby 5.1 mix, on the other hand, surprises for its clarity and fidelity. The soundtrack, whose score was loud enough to cause complaint in early studio screenings, gets distributed nicely to each speaker. The 0.1 channel throbs.
The special features for Vulgar are best described as "perverse overkill"--this is a disc packed with enough errata that one might make the mistake that the picture has something to offer other than a foul aftertaste. Writer-director Bryan Johnson, producers Monica Hampton, Scott Mosier, and Kevin Smith, and star Brian Christopher O'Halloran team up to provide a raucous commentary track sure to please View Askew fans, though the ordeal of actually watching the damned thing again with a different track isn't likely to appeal to anyone else.
The four-year gap between completion and distribution is touched upon very lightly, as is Howard Stern's (!) disdain for it and the reason for the superior soundmix (the picture was dubbed at Skywalker Ranch), but the bulk of the track is given over to razzing and self-congratulation. A lengthy diatribe by Johnson on most critics being unable to separate the subject matter from the technical accomplishments of the film misses the boat entirely on just how much of a mercy that kind of tunnel-vision is for the prospects of any future career for the filmmaker. A jab at My Big Fat Greek Wedding, however--a film that shares many of the shortcomings of Vulgar, oddly enough--is admittedly well placed.
The highlight of the disc is probably "Judge Not: In Defense of Dogma", a 37-minute documentary that, because of legal issues, bleeps out certain names and was left off both DVD releases of Dogma proper. While not particularly revelatory in and of itself (the frequently brilliant Dogma already says all there really needs to be said on the subject of religious hypocrisy), excoriating the intolerance and ignorant shortsightedness of certain members of the Catholic League never gets old. It's too bad that terror and censorship are so dangerous, because, let's face it, Ned Flanders is hilarious. The target of a few death threats myself, I find it gratifying to hear that promising to take another's life because of a difference of opinion is a comfortable recourse for the pious and not just reserved for devotees of Burt Reynolds and Titanic.
Six rough and not-interesting deleted scenes are preceded by an introduction by the commentary crew, five letters from festivals with the good sense to reject the film, a gallery of 37 promotional stills and behind-the-scenes shots, and a block of trailers for Vulgar, Dogma, and Tail Lights Fade (accessible through the "Lions Gate" logo on the main menu) round out the presentation. Originally published: November 18, 2002.
*It's worth mentioning that the last credit in the end credits is a "special thanks" to "Satan" that should probably piss the dark lord off to no end: Satan's subtle, man.