There is a scene during the final third of “NOLA Circus” in which a young African-American barber is abducted from his shop at gunpoint by three men wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits, forced to wear a burlap bag over his head, driven to a remote location, ordered to strip naked, and told to run for his life before a dog is set free to chase him. The scene — which is previewed in fleeting flash-forwards at several points earlier in the film — is supposed to be funny. “NOLA Circus” is meant to be a comedy.
And here’s the punchline: The guys in the Klan robes turn out to be black. They’re not racist killers; they’re just trying to throw a scare into the man they’re tormenting. Pretty hilarious, huh?
Often recalling the original advertising tagline for Tony Richardson’s “The Loved One” — “The motion picture with something to offend everyone!” — “NOLA Circus” tries desperately and disastrously to wring laughter from the antics of African-American, Italian-American and, briefly, Greek-American caricatures as they frenetically interact in a scenario so slapdash as to suggest the whole thing may have been improvised.
What passes for a plot has something to do with the rivalry between two New Orleans neighborhood barbers — Will (Martin Bradford), a political activist who winds up as the aforementioned naked runner, and Marvin (Vas Blackwood), an irrepressible horndog who keeps clippings of pubic hair from every romantic conquest — and something else to do with the near-homicidal rages of Denzel (Reginal Varice), a brutish psycho who wants to keep any man, including Will, from despoiling Nola (Jessica Morali), his sexy (and, apparently, criminally inclined) sister. Also figuring into the mix: Karen (Kamille McCuin), Nola’s drug-dealing best friend, a shrill harpy who joins her buddy in an ill-planned kidnapping scheme; and Giuseppe (Ricky Wayne), a foul-mouthed pizzeria owner who wants revenge for the major beatdown he received when Denzel wrongly assumed he was wooing Nola.
“NOLA Circus” (the title refers to both a lead character and the abbreviation for New Orleans) is the kind of hideously unfunny folderol in which most cast members are encouraged to act at the top of their lungs to compensate for the witless script. But wait, there’s more: Writer-director Luc Annest, indicating a stunning degree of industrial-strength shamelessness, periodically name-checks Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks to show that, for all his shucking and jiving, his heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, this only proves that his head is somewhere else entirely.