Killing the traditional icon of stage comedy presents the birth and rebirth of what an audience can and can no longer connect with. Clowns were a staple of the circus. They likely still are. But for other mediums that moved on from the trivial history that surrounds the art of clownery, the repossession of painted faces and red noses has taken sinister turns. Stephen King’s IT or the less-remembered Killer Clowns from Outer Space both spring to mind. Taking on a new form as a tragic entity or horror beast is a long and winding road that leads audiences far, far away from what Adam Resurrected hopes to possess. Within this Paul Schrader-directed feature are the howls of Jerry Lee Lewis’ work on a holocaust drama that had a clown at the heart of it.
But Adam Resurrected is no The Day the Clown Cried, and thankfully so, in a way. Schrader has often managed to establish unlikely performers in new territory. He did so for Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, and he does much the same for Jeff Goldblum as Adam Stein, a PTSD-riddled clown that cannot come to terms with the days ahead of him. There is something truly touching about such a story and it is more often than not due to the delivery Goldblum takes to this performance. As good a performance as it is, and great it is to see his sparring partner Willem Dafoe pick up the mantle as a villainous Nazi commander, Schrader misses the core emotional commentary needed to elevate a film such as this.
It is not the absence that hurts it, but the reliance on tropes and trends that simply are not there. Schrader’s presentation of trauma and the attempt at overcoming it is a sincere display, but for all the delicacy, it never comes together quite as it should. There are intricacies found within, the camera shots throughout feel sweeping and surround characters that need intimacy, not impressive crane shots that swoop down and around. Schrader is a natural for writing reflective work, but when it comes to directing it, the process is hit or miss. Adam Resurrected does include a handful of heavy-hitting moments, but they are buoyed more by a love for the performer behind them than the implication and atmosphere.
Misery loves comedy, but not like this. Not literally so. Lewis may not have managed to bring his project into the cold light of day, but Adam Resurrected serves as a litmus test for what could have been. There are strong moments that round this out as a feature worthy of the Schrader filmography, but it is not a grand recollection or intricate view of a doomed and degraded individual. Hard, hard work from Goldblum lifts that as far as it can go, and thankfully for those that are often enchanted by his work they will have no trouble engaging with him here. Defoe and Goldblum share a hefty number of scenes together, but the dynamic is too far gone, too barebones and simplistic. A man treated like a mutt will know nothing more, and individually the two give monumental performances. When they come together, which is where Schrader needs success, is where it falls apart. A sad shame, but not as sad as the clown at the heart of Adam Resurrected.