This off-beat 1980 flick places Jodie Foster, Gary Busey, and Robbie Robertson into possibly the best depiction of the carnival's dark side since Tod Browning's Freaks. Robert Kaylor directed the film; he, Phoebe Kaylor, Thomas Baum, and Robertson co-wrote the script.
Robertson and Busey play Patch and Frankie, a couple of hard-living, hard-playing grifters with an especially sleazy traveling carnival. For the most part, they work the Bozo Cage; Frankie taunts and insults passers-by, hoping they'll pay to dunk him. While they enjoy casual sex with women they meet on the road, their own relationship functions as a kind of volatile marriage. Their meeting with teenage Donna (Foster) changes that. Patch and Donna become involved; Frankie becomes jealous. Of course, he does not really recognize his own jealousy.
Along the way, the carnival faces outside pressures, Frankie pulls his 1972 Buick "batmobile"/"boat-tail" Riviera into a truckers-only diner, and Donna cooks dinner, hits on lesbians, and attempts to earn a living in the carnival's girlie show. Frankie and Patch stop getting along; the Fat Man (George Emerson) sings the blues. Meg Foster makes an appearance.
The film does not probe as far beneath the surface as it should, and the ending does not really work. Still, Carny has great atmosphere, decent acting, and such a pervasive air of cool cynicism mixed with sleazy desperation that it's hard to ignore.
The novel, over-written by Thomas Baum and published the same year as the film, doesn't work nearly as well. Baum fails to really develop the central characters, and the portrayal of women is questionable, to say the least. The book has, however, a stunning cover, with imagery drawn directly from the film. It overtly recalls those sleazy paperback covers of the 1950s, while remaining in context for 1980. Except as an objet d'art, however, it has little to recommend it.
See the film.