Funny Bones (1995)

D: Peter Chelsom
S: Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, Jerry Lewis

Uniquely textured dramatic comedy following the spiritual journey of failed American comedian Oliver Platt to find his centre, if he has one, in Blackpool, England. His quest brings him into confrontation with his past, especially the former life of his successful father, Jerry Lewis, whose career began there in his childhood. It is also the story of disturbed young Lee Evans, another performer with a troubled past and an equally shady present, and upon whom Platt's self-realisation turns in several ways.

It is difficult to classify the film and therefore difficult to recommend in generic terms. It is not so much a comedy as a film about comedy which is occasionally very funny. It is also very dramatic, with many affecting scenes and plenty of emotional and psychological revelation throughout. Yet it is surreal and freely draws upon a world of nightmarish imagery drawn from the characters' inner perceptions and memories which frequently throws askew the more conventional aspects of the plot. There are also some slightly uncertain moments in the script which are not attributable to mere surrealism; exposition and resolution which seems to come when needed rather than when it ought, resulting in a peculiar tone which is more than half-way intentional but not entirely (just what is the deal with Oliver Reed?).

Still, this is one of those unique films which has the capacity to transport the viewer to another world. Engrossing from the Woody Allenesque title sequence intersped with the unfolding of a dramatic scene at sea involving smuggling eggs (all will be revealed if you watch) which is then followed by the scenes of Platt's disastrous appearance on a Las Vegas stage in the shadow of his great father. Not everything that follows fits together in a logical fashion, but it does eventually amount to an enthralling glimpse into the world of entertainment seen from the soul of a melancholic clown. There are several wondrous sequences featuring comedy and circus routines which serve like songs in a Hollywood musical to punctuate the dramatic exposition with emotion and spectacle. Chelsom carefully films these to emphasise their revealing details rather than the punchlines, and those hoping for a sort of recorded variety act or a plethora of one-liners will find themselves thoroughly confused.

It tries to penetrate the veneer of comedy and examine its roots. Rather than use comedy or comedians to temper a dramatic story, this is a dramatic story which is about comedy and comedians. It is as much about the people themselves as what they do, and poses a Yeatesian riddle of how to tell the dancer from the dance. The fact that so many of these people seem damaged or conflicted is not merely a pat psychological observation as the source of some richly ambiguous imagery, and provides the film with its cathartic climax.

It occasionally has the feeling of a David Lynch film without the darkness or a Luis Buñuel film without the social irony. For some this may suggest something empty and worthless; style without meaning or form without content, but this is unfair. Funny Bones lacks the penetration of a great surrealist film and is fragmentary and not quite satisfying on a dramatic level, but it is capably made and performed and manages to stimulate the viewer in a peculiar but intriguing manner. It at least has the exhilirating feeling of a genuine work of cinematic art, although flawed, which few enough films have these days.

It will play best with those of a more esoteric taste, perhaps with a fondness for European avant-garde or experimental films (Les Enfants du Paradis springs to mind). It might also help to have some familiarity with the settings from faint memories of a childhood holiday. Evans and Platt are good, with Jerry Lewis playing nicely in support. There are simple pleasures to be had on this level, but it is still not likely to win masses of fans. It is more destined to develop a strong cult following and turn up on late night television, which is perhaps the best time to watch it: when your mind is in a semi-conscious state analagous to that the film attempts to create, you are probably best disposed to appreciating its unique appeal.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.