Cinema: Illumination in Blackpool

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The Independent Culture
THE SECRET of great comedy is often said to be timing, and by a sweet synchronicity this week's three releases are all comedies, all funny, and all capable of shedding light on the dark business of laughter. In the best of the bunch, Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones (15), a veteran, successful comic (played by veteran, successful comic Jerry Lewis) argues that there are two kinds of comedian: "One is funny, the other tells funny." The tragedy for Lewis's son, Tommy (Oliver Platt), whom the film follows from Las Vegas, where he "dies" on stage in front of his father and other luminaries, to Blackpool, is that he is neither type: he's not funny. He hasn't got funny bones.

Funny Bones sprawls exuberantly. Its opening scenes flit through cinematic genres with gleeful abandon - thriller, horror, grotesque comedy. But soon the plot settles in Blackpool, where, scarred by his Vegas flop, Tommy hopes to buy material from the sort of comics who inspired his father's early career. He views comedy as a commodity, instead of something that springs from the lives and personalities of its performers. Men like the Parker brothers (Freddie Davies and George Carl), a pair of old gargoyles who worked with Tommy's father, have honed their Keatonesque capers for decades. While Jack (Lee Evans), who turns out to be Tommy's half-brother (Lewis's Blackpool love - or "laugh" - child) and a mirror image of him, is as naturally, anarchically funny as Tommy is dour and defensive.

Lee Evans's Jack is a wonderful turn - both hilarious and disturbing - at the heart of the movie's comedy and its argument. He's as dextrously droll verbally as physically. When a psychiatrist (played by the film-maker Gavin Millar), examining Jack about his deranged behaviour, asks if he's lived in Blackpool all his life, he replies: "Not yet." Evans's infinitely agitated face is a mask of paranoia. The grim features and harried mind make him a likely son for Jerry Lewis. His act is a weird and worrying mime to a radio boxing commentary. Appropriately, in a film that seems to argue that comedy is far more serious than life, his funniest moment comes in an accidental pas de deux with a corpse in a morgue.

Without slipping into portentousness, the film suggests that Jack is a symbol of comedy. Funny by both nature and nurture, he represents both the boon and brutality of humour. Jack has been banned from the stage after coshing a fellow performer for real when it was supposed to be a piece of harmless comic business. At the movie's climax, he performs a Keystone Cop-type chase, whose sheer viciousness lays bare the pure pain and concentrated aggression at comedy's heart. Here, the script by Chelsom and Peter Flannery (author of the equally anguished and brilliant stage-play, Singer) covers similar ground to Trevor Griffiths' great play, Comedians. Griffiths' hero, a former comic now teaching stand-up comics, believes there are no jokes left, that "every one is a tiny pellet". The same sentiments are expressed in Funny Bones by one of the Parker brothers: "I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible, didn't cause pain". But Funny Bones takes the theme further, showing how comic insight intensifies joy as well as suffering. The movie is about the burden and blessing of wit.

Funny Bones is a film of ideas - a cerebral surprise in British cinema. But it's not dry or academic. Chelsom is incapable of setting up a dull shot. He shoots Blackpool with all the gaudy charm of a McGill postcard, complete with street-level slo-mo sequences of the plump calfs of local matrons. His editing jolts the mood from high humour to nostalgic lyricism or gruesome horror in the blink of an eye, keeping us on our toes. Chelsom's camera often seems tuned into the frightening hysteria of laughter, giving the movie a strain of manic mysticism. And crucially, for a film about humour, Funny Bones is very funny itself. It overflows with funny faces: from the fey ferret's chops of the entertainment lawyer Tommy hires, to his famous dad's puffed-up pomposity, sportingly provided by Lewis. Chelsom can even turn round the hackneyed routine of no-hopers auditioning, seen in so many movies, from Broadway Danny Rose to The Fabulous Baker Boys, into a comic delight - crowned by a man tap-dancing with biscuit tins on his feet.

Funny Bones has faults, but they are the faults of excess, of superabundance - absolutely venial in today's cinema of scarcity, where most films have barely two ideas to rub together. I hadn't thought this year would throw up a British film as sharp and intelligent as The Young Poisoner's Handbook, but this matches it. See them both.

Billy Crystal knows a thing or two about comedy too. His last film, the underrated Mr Saturday Night, told the life-story of a veteran Jewish comic, and, like Funny Bones, spent most of the time mopping up the blood spilt by a rapier wit. Crystal's new film, Forget Paris (12), which he co-wrote and stars in, is an- other tricky work, a romantic comedy which wears a sly smirk on one half of its face. Crystal plays a basketball referee, who goes to Paris to bury his father. (All three of the week's comedies have a father at their centre, providing a field day for theorists who argue that comedy is an assault on the parental order.) After a mix-up, he meets expatriate Debra Winger, falls in love with her, takes her home, and marries her. Then, of course, the problems start.

Forget Paris is the refrain and theme of the film - abandon romanticism all ye who enter marriage, since idylls, such as the one Crystal and Winger enjoy in Paris, are unsustainable in everyday life. It is a surprisingly cynical message, assiduously worked, which may explain why the film went down badly at the American box office. When the joy goes out of Crystal and Winger's marriage some of the spark goes out of the film. But Crystal's gags are as good as ever (his humour is almost entirely verbal), and, unlike in some of the summer's more feted romantic comedies, the characters are developed - until a confected artificial-insemination plot takes over. If you are one of the droves disappointed by While You Were Sleeping, this may be the date movie for you.

Humour and eccentricity are the last redoubt of the insecure, is the message of the dead-pan Icelandic comedy, Cold Fever (15). A young Japanese man visits Iceland, searching for the obscure outpost where his parents died, in order to show respect for them in death as he never did in their lives. The tiny, frozen nation throws up as many oddballs as snowballs. Weirdness has become an assertion of identity. A garrulous driver, who gives him a lift, abandons the car to take part in a fully costumed re- enactment of the nativity. Another hitch-hike finds him on top of a lorry with a male voice choir matching the full blast of the elements. Our sober hero makes his way through this series of wacky excursions, with the baffled expression of a man blinking through bedlam. It's a blizzard of fun.

Cinema details: Review, page 84.