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CARNY (director/writer: Robert Kaylor; screenwriters: Thomas Baum/story by Phoebe Kaylor, Robert Kaylor and Robbie Robertson; cinematographer: Harry Stradling Jr.; editor: Stuart Pappé; music: Alex North; cast: Gary Busey (Frankie), Jodie Foster (Donna), Robbie Robertson (Patch), Meg Foster (Gerta), Kenneth McMillan (Heavy St. John), Elisha Cook (On-Your-Mark), Bill McKinney (Marvin Dill), Bert Remsen (Delno Baptiste), John Lehne (Skeet), Craig Wasson (Mickey); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Robbie Robertson; Warner Home Video; 1980)
The ambiance turns out to be much richer than the narrative.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Documentary filmmaker Robert Kaylor (“Derby”/”Max-Out”/”Nobody’s Perfect”) tries his hand at fiction and nearly hits a home run, except for the unconvincing conclusion and a plot that’s too thin to give the film much depth. It’s a dark atmospheric traveling carnival story that has the same affinity for freaks as did Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Writer Thomas Baum bases the haunting film on a hearty group of survivors in the carnival circuit. It’s set in the seedy parts of the South, and is based on the story by Phoebe Kaylor, Robert Kaylor and The Band’s rock guitarist/vocal leader Robbie Robertson.

Frankie (Gary Busey) and Patch (Robbie Robertson) have been partners in a carny hustle for the last ten years, where Frankie dresses up like Bozo the Clown and sits in a cage as he eggs the crowd on so they throw balls at him and if they hit the mark they dunk the loudmouth into a tub of water. The cynical smoothie Patch, the peacemaker Mr. Fix-It, works the midway, hustling business, handling disputes, assisting the head of the carnival (Kenneth McMillan) in paying off bribes to local leaders and gangsters so the carnival can operate and acting as security for his often targeted partner. In Reading, the 18-year-old unhappy bored waitress, Donna (Jodi Foster), ditches her obnoxious boyfriend (Craig Wasson) and after a one-night stand talks Frankie into taking her along to their next stop in Raleigh. She first romances Frankie, and then makes love to Patch. This brings on some tension. But not as much as the climactic scene in Charlotte where the carnival is threatened by the evil local shady businessman with mob and political connections (Bill McKinney) and his boorish redneck henchman (John Lehne), and the boys must retaliate against their violent foes or face ruin.

The stark road movie/buddy movie could have been better if Kaylor was more adept at going for the jugular and creeping everyone out by really getting down and dirty instead of copping out with an unwarranted trite saccharine ending to a story that features real circus freaks, a great wacky performance by Elisha Cook as the elderly hamburger operator with the bizarre lines that zing you, and its ability to create authentic carnival sleaziness. Carny demanded an edgy ending to all the perversity it dredged up, and a more artistic filmmaker would have been able to avoid the banality Kaylor reaches for when he becomes too timid at the high wire act he set up. The ambiance turns out to be much richer than the narrative, in this still intriguing misanthropic pic (freaks and outsiders against the ugly conventional world) that revels in the pleasure one gets in hustling someone at their con game.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”