Directed by Peter Chelsom. Starring Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, George Carl, Freddie Davies, Leslie Caron, Jerry Lewis, Richard Griffiths, Oliver Reed, Ruta Lee, Harold Nicholas. (1995, R, 128 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 26, 1995
Funny Bones is a wonderfully eccentric movie, one whose narrative advancement occurs more through epiphanies than events. Unfolding in what seems, at first, quite a random fashion, the viewer must trust that the movie will, ultimately, come together and deliver a payoff. Funny Bones rewards that trust handsomely. In many ways, Funny Bones resembles Chelsom's last film, Hear My Song. That highly acclaimed film also marked this British director's debut as a feature filmmaker. Each film presents an odd mixture of comic and serious tones, as well as a strong sense of place. Most of the action in Funny Bones occurs in Blackpool, England, a seaside resort and entertainment mecca especially popular during the vaudeville years. But before getting to Blackpool, Funny Bones first visits the scene of a high seas smuggling caper gone awry and then switches, quite disconcertingly, to a Las Vegas dressing-room psychodrama. During the smuggling scene we are introduced to Jack Parker (Evans), who is last seen here diving into the sea below from the crow's nest of a ship. In Las Vegas, Tommy Fawkes (Platt), the son of a Mr. Showbiz legend (Lewis), is about to take the stage. Always in the shadow of his world-famous father, Tommy is about to make his Vegas debut as a comedian. Bombing spectacularly, Tommy escapes (incognito in a yellow suit) to Blackpool, where he spent his early childhood during what he recalls as the happiest years of his life. Ostensibly in town to buy the funniest physical comedy material he can find, Tommy discovers some crucial keys to his past and future. In Jack, who is now perched atop Blackpool's famed tower, Tommy finds his comedic other half. Tommy also learns some secrets about his father, as well as some knowledge about the sources of comedy and the art of clowning. The movie also functions at a level beyond the pure narrative; it provides a sort of ongoing meta-commentary on such thorny issues as mortality and the very nature of comedy. Somehow, this description makes Funny Bones sound much darker than it actually is. What it is, actually, is hilarious. A montage of auditioning Blackpool comedy acts is side-splittingly funny. Jack, who is described as a “laugh child,” is a natural-born clown whose problem is not knowing when to stop. His father and uncle, the Parker Brothers, are played by real-life variety artists Freddie Davies and George Carl. As for Jerry Lewis, the role of George Fawkes was written with him in mind and he inhabits the character as commandingly as he did that of Scorsese's King of Comedy. Cast as Jack's mother and a professional trouper, Leslie Caron is positively captivating. Moreover, she gets to sing and play a believable Cleopatra. Still, these are only a few of the film's highlights; oddities are the stuff of this universe. The most significant contribution of Funny Bones may be the way it celebrates the act of dancing on the edge, the way a true artist needs to push the borders and venture into the dangerous beyond. Lovingly recapturing the visual texture of the past while embracing the artistic challenges of the future, Funny Bones is a rare contemporary delight.