Frank (Frank Hvam), the hapless protagonist of the funny but disappointingly diagrammatic Danish film “Klown,” musters only one nugget of wisdom for his 12-year-old charge, Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen). It’s sage advice from a professional man-child to a burgeoning one: “When grown-ups are horny, they do terrible things to those they love.”
Well, at least the guys of “Klown” do. Director Mikkel Norgaard’s comedy mixes handheld, documentary-style camerawork, juvenile raunch, and a buddy trip gone awry: Lars von Trier with penis jokes, Judd Apatow with Scandinavian liberalism, and a dash of “Deliverance” leavened with phrases like “Tour de Pussy.” If its various disasters — “man flirting,” sexual misapprehensions, scatological humiliation — are derivative, “Klown” at least ups the ante a bit, direct and vulgar. (About the funniest gag, all I can say on a family website is that it involves an eye patch.) Not all of the jokes land, but those that do have a rotten, sulfurous quality (I mean that in a good way), an aftertaste of bitterness that makes them wholly distinctive.
With some ingenious plotting, “Klown” takes Frank, Bo, and sex fiend Casper (Casper Christensen) from a Copenhagen wedding to a riverside camp, a “pancake house,” a music festival, a bordello, a hospital, and a tour bus, as Frank flails away at forging a relationship with Bo to prove to his pregnant girlfriend that he’s mature enough to be a dad. “We all have father potential,” Casper tells him in one of the film’s rare (and brief) moments of introspection. “It’s just a question of how deep it’s buried.” Frank’s father potential is buried so deep it’d take the cast of “Prometheus” to unearth it, and “Klown” wrings every drop of humor it can from this character flaw.
By focusing on baby daddies and the women who nag them, however, the film undermines its bold language with some cowardly choices. If you’ve seen “Knocked Up,” you’ve seen a soft-core version of “Klown,” in which the ladies bray and scowl while the gents get to have all the fun. Well, that’s not quite a fair comparison: Katherine Heigl’s strained career woman and Leslie Mann’s aging banshee in Apatow’s film are not complicated or particularly funny female characters, but they look like feminist icons compared to the ciphers that populate “Klown.”
“Klown” is, of course, “just” a comedy, the kind of movie that my friends tell me I’m overanalyzing. I’ll cop to snobbery when the accusation’s deserved, but the point I’m making here is that the sex comedy — particularly one, like “Klown,” that strives self-consciously for audacity — is stronger, faster, smarter, better when the writing makes it a fair fight. There may be an element of satire in Casper’s mantra, “pussy beats fatherhood,” but without anyone there to slap him upside the head and remind him that the two are linked, the line drifts away without the punch. (I’m not only accusing films that focus more on men, by the way, though they vastly outnumber the rest. “Bridesmaids,” one of the best women-centered films in years, still falls back on some easy gender dichotomies that render the romantic scenes slack by comparison with what goes on among the members of the bride’s party.)
“Klown,” a sometimes-hilarious film that follows the contours of the man-child subgenre a little too closely for its own good, plots its characters like data points on a graph: sluts and whiners, assholes and slackers, The Four Quadrants of Sex Comedy. Perhaps the filmmakers could have used another piece of sage advice: more movie, less math.
“Klown” opens in select theaters on Friday, with simultaneous releases on iTunes and on VOD.