Plot: Donna (Jodie Foster) is a young girl who is dissatisfied with her life and longs for a way out, but feels trapped in the small town she grew up. When a carnival arrives in town, she and her boyfriend visit the midway and play some games, including a few minutes at the dunk tank. Inside is Frankie (Gary Busey), a boisterous man with clown makeup on who barks at passersby, hoping to rattle them enough to pay for the right to send him into the drink. Donna is drawn to Frankie’s colorful persona and later in the night, the two strike up a quick connection, before her boyfriend interrupts and draws the ire of the other carnies. She returns the day to seek out Frankie and the two pick up where they left and soon enough, Donna decides the carnival is her chance to leave her old life behind and start over. But will she be able to handle the unusual lifestyle and what will become of her romance with Frankie?
Entertainment Value: I always seek out movies about people within the circus or carnival lifestyles, so one with this kind of colorful cast was a natural and Carny doesn’t disappoint. The narrative follows some of the expected paths, such as a young person running off with the carnival for a fresh start, the focus on characters and unvarnished look at carnival life ensure that even the familiar elements feel reinvigorated here. I love how Carny doesn’t try to soften or smooth the edges on carnival life and in truth, the events depicted within the movie don’t even feel that trumped up. I’ve read a number of books about traveling carnivals and this material doesn’t exaggerate, though it does focus on the wilder moments, as expected. But the brawls with locals, drama between performers, and even under the table deals with law enforcement are all rooted in well known, well documented traditions of the carnivals. The sights and sounds of the carnival, both out on the midway and behind the scenes are presented in immersive, effective fashion as well. I think anyone who has ever visited one will feel those memories coming back as they watch. The story kept me reeled in, I loved the carnival atmosphere, colorful characters, and enthusiastic performances, so I have to give Carny a high recommendation.
As you can likely tell, I had a great time with this movie and while I liked a lot about it, the performances deserve some special praise. Gary Busey is a performer I can always count on for a spirited turn and he proves that here, with an energetic, go for broke effort as our dunk tank lead. He is hilarious in those dunk tank scenes, with a bananas screen presence that makes you want to both laugh out loud and see him dropped in the drink. The scene where he taunts Donna’s boyfriend is quite memorable and Busey really nails the attitude of the carnies who lure in marks, again adding to the authentic carnival texture. But he is also able to convey the quieter moments, as there is some emotion and depth to his character. Jodie Foster and Robbie Robertson are terrific as well, with genuine and kinetic performances. All three leads work well together and anchor the movie, whether in the romantic triangle or the carnival driven sequences. The supporting cast is quite good as well, with Fred Ward, Bert Remsen, Meg Foster, and Tim Thomerson on deck.