Jason Robards is one of those quirky actors that managed to weave in and out of movies without having to water down his unique vibe. A Thousand Clowns, originally a play now brought to the screen by Fred Coe, might just be the best thing he ever starred in- an offbeat 60’s dramedy, and a wonderful testament to nonconformity.
Robards is Murray, an unemployed actor who has taken charge of his nephew, Nick. The two live a totally bohemian life, blissfully eschewing the social structures the rest of us have to follow, until a couple of social workers show up with a dose of systemic reality, looking out for the welfare of the child. Murray, of course, makes a mockery of their whole getup.
But it’s not all fun and games- in fact, wrapped around all that 60’s lunacy, A Thousand Clowns is a rather sad, melancholy drama studying how the human spirit is supposed to navigate our soul-crushing modern society. While it very much feels like the off-broadway play that it is (with the same stylistic vibe as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) the script transcends its freak flag clichés with sweet doses of life-embracing wackiness, from ukulele duets to Marx Brothers-esque one-liners.
Lovingly set (and showing off) a vibrant, romantic New York of 56 years ago, shot and edited with edgy vitality inspired by the French New Wave, A Thousand Clowns thumbs its nose at everything respectable, and the shallowness of success. It wears its heart on its sleeve, for better and for worse, but mostly for the better.