Pelle Hermanni

Pelle Hermanni

In his book The Semiotics of Clowns and Clowning, Paul Bouissac writes: "A clown performance is indeed an act of both signification and communication. As words or phrases by themselves without any context represent only semantic potential, so do makeup, garb, artifacts, and gags. These building blocks need to be integrated into a narrative structure in order to produce a fully articulated signification."

Pelle Hermanni (2022) opens with a scene where the titular clown, after being hurried to the stage by the tedious child protagonist Roni, performs at the circus he works in. The act, based on the brief glimpses the movie provides, consists of disconnected slapstick gags: Hermanni tries to balance on an exercise ball and falls. Hermanni tries to ride a unicycle and falls. (The movie cuts away on each impact, reducing the physical comedy to the level of implication.) After the performance, another character remarks on how the audience mistakenly read Hermanni's stumbles as purposeful, revealing that the most famous clown in the country did not have any actual gags in his repertoire, and instead just accidentally failed at things in a funny way.

This characterization of clowning is interesting in how in line it is with how Pelle Hermanni understands humor and narrative on the whole: as a series of disconnected gags. Setup and payoff, even arcs that start and end coherently, feel like rare treats, which is probably not a feeling you should have when watching any movie.

There's 20 minutes of a good Pelle Hermanni story in there about Hermanni searching for his long-lost father and finding him but refusing to meet up due to a funny misunderstanding, which then gets cleared up. The rest of the runtime is taken by meaningless and purposeless side plots: the rivalry of two magicians who reconcile in a way that has nothing to do with the main plot; Roni getting bullied and then stopping getting bullied for no reason; Roni getting lost and having an unnecessary side adventure that is resolved immediately; a news reporter chasing after Hermanni, leading to nothing at all. It's a movie for children strangely unconcerned with being didactic – no character learns anything or changes in any way.

And when the film comes together so badly, even the parts that work suffer from their inevitably limited payoff. In a pretty funny joke, Hermanni sees a news report about the people of the circus looking for him and panics about being a missing person. This gag delves into the clown as a transgressor of social norms who defies common understanding of how things work – a man who obviously knows where he is starts to consider himself lost because the TV said so. The movie milks some adequately funny jokes from this, like the receptionist thinking that Hermanni is depressed due to the double meaning of the phrase olen hukassa. But there is no grand resolution, no final punchline; the gag just fizzles out.

Similarly, there is a pretty great montage of Hermanni and his father trying to reach each other but failing due to funny mishaps near the end. Daddy clown is running towards Hermanni, but then the news reporter comes and drags him into the car! Oh no! And then in the next scene, Hermanni's father is already following him again, and the interview simply happens and they reunite. So many of the jokes don't build up, they don't evolve, they don't climax. The movie could make a clown cry with how little it understands of the role structure and narrative play in crafting humor.

The film's comedy also suffers from not trusting the child audience and spelling out many jokes in a way that robs them of their effectiveness. Again from Bouissac: "[T]he construction of a clown act pays utmost attention to the timing of gags. Some are prepared by moves staged ahead of time and contribute to creating misleading anticipations in the mind of the audience. Gags must indeed deliver information in the form of surprises. A gag whose development is obvious and predictable falls flat and generates boredom." Pelle Hermanni does not care for the element of surprise: Roni's mom has a character gimmick of mangling sayings and then refusing to admit that she got them wrong, which is introduced by the voiceover narration saying that she does this. Unsurprisingly, it's not really funny afterwards. Comedic timing on the whole feels very off, too; the editing is messy, and too many gags are accentuated with distracting sound effects instead of just being paced in a way that makes sense.

The review in Helsingin Sanomat noted that the prominent child characters (not taken from the TV show) seem to be inspired by the director's previous Risto Räppääjä movies. This feels like a believable observation, since they don't fit into the style of the movie at all. Characters continue to use the stylized language of the original show, mostly speaking in Finnish literary language and some incorporating mannerisms such as repetition; the adult actors handle this just fine, with Minttu Mustakallio as Sylvia being a standout and Vesa Vierakko himself being a decent Hermanni, even if he is more of an imitator than a reinventor. But the kids, who were not directed to use spoken language, struggle to deliver their lines. Their inclusion is fundamentally ill-conceived to begin with – the childish Hermanni already worked as something of an audience surrogate whenever the story needed one – but the execution does the idea no favors. It's 50 % of a Pelle Hermanni reboot and 50 % of a Risto Räppääjä movie set in a circus.

As a movie about a clown, you'd expect it to be funny, but Pelle Hermanni is so very rarely. As a reboot of a story about a strangely melancholic guy who had nightmares about being killed by terrorists, you'd expect it to carry forward some of that tone, but the entire thing is bland and emotionless. And as a movie for children, you'd expect it to be competently, if simply, plotted and contain easily understood messages, but it's just a mess of disconnected episodes the characters go through without learning anything. There is little to make up for the flaws; all the actual circus acts are bad (extra points for the magic tricks being all CGI, defeating the basic point of a magic trick by overdosing on unreality), and the terrible dance and music numbers just try to seek sympathy points by being performed by children.

Who is this movie for? Is Pelle Hermanni a nostalgic offering for adults who grew up watching the show? Apart from using the Radetzky March (which served as its opening theme) a few times, it doesn't really invoke feelings of nostalgia on purpose. There is some kind of meta element to Hermanni being an extremely famous clown who gets interviewed on TV and has a loyal fan following, but this element is half-baked. So is it just for new audiences?

Well, as I was leaving the theater, I overheard a child excitedly telling their dad how their favorite part was when Hermanni was at the hotel about to reunite with his father. Damn – even 8-year-olds can tell how much the pointless subplots of this movie blow, and the opinion feels very in line with how quiet the theater was for most of it. I expect this child to make a letterboxd account in 2032, look up Pelle Hermanni, and leave a two-star review to the effect of "I saw this as a child but it kind of sucks :/". Nostalgic adults who dragged themselves to Pelle Hermanni in hopes of seeing something that would show at least a little care towards the tone or the humor of the original show deserve better, but so do children, the primary target audience of this movie that it fails enormously.

The only movie truly for nobody is a movie that just sucks in a way that is not particularly funny, and this is that movie. Contrary to what the fan-made trailer posited, Pelle Hermanni is not the Finnish Joker – it's just the Finnish Morbius. Making memes that have nothing to do with the film's actual plot is the only form of entertainment you'll get from it. Anyway congrats to Pelle Hermanni for probably making 100 Hermillion Euros since the Finnish film industry is content with feeding kids garbage because they are too young for subtitles and therefore a reliable audience!!!

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