FILM: It's painful being this funny

A right caution or a Rupert Pupkin? Funny Bones explores the pain of trying to be funny... and failing. ; FUNNY BONES Peter Chelsom (15)
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Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones is his second film (the first was Here My Song) to concern itself with entertainment of a nostalgic character. This director genuinely seems to want to make contemporary cinema about old fashioned arts that are either mildly resistant or fiercely allergic to the priorities of film. In Funny Bones, whose screenplay Chelsom wrote in collaboration with Peter Flannery, his subject is the theory and practice of comedy, but he isn't concerned with stand-up, let alone television sit-com, but with music hall and its legacy.

What makes people laugh? What makes people funny? The canonical works on these themes are Scorsese's The King of Comedy, and in the theatre Trevor Griffiths's Comedians and no time should be allowed to pass before announcing that Funny Bones is not in competition. The various pronouncements on the nature and sources of laughter that the film contains are not only fatuous but usually disproved by other parts of the movie. Nor is Funny Bones a blindingly funny film, though it has its moments of inspiration. But something stubbornly goes right with the enterprise, as the director's choices in three areas - slow pace, low key, stylised visual environment - all of which seem perverse when the film begins, gradually justify themselves.

Funny Bones is set mainly in Blackpool, a town the director establishes and undercuts as a coastal resort out of a comic postcard. Yes, there are fat, raincoated ladies in bus shelters licking ice-creams with tongues like lewd trowels; yes, there are lamas and camels on the streets as well as old folk moving in seeming slow motion. But sand, sea and sky are sometimes treated as piercingly pure elements, as visual primaries. The music is never what you would expect: not cheeky English comedy numbers but suave French boulevard songs or throaty rural blues; not George Formby but Charles Trenet or John Lee Hooker.

On to these stylised plains comes Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt), running from a disastrous Las Vegas debut where his famous father George (Jerry Lewis) stole the show, and returning to a place where he was happy as a child - his family lived in Blackpool till he was six, before George went back to the US and became a star. But if this is the emotional plot, to do with self-acceptance and learning to let go of the past, there is also a slapstick-mechanical one, to do with "The Emperor's Private Store of the Powder of Immortality", with French sailors on a mission of revenge, and with a washed-up pair of severed feet that are giving the local tourist officer a headache. Chelsom slowly juggles with these incongruous plots, in a way that is enjoyable to watch just as long as you can stop yourself asking, why juggle slow if you can juggle at all? If you can walk a tightrope, why not raise it above six inches?

On his quest to buy new material, Tommy catches the act of Jack Parker (Lee Evans) and realises that this is his half-brother, the comedy Mozart to his Salieri. The realisation is well conveyed by a sequence of Leslie Caron, who plays Jack's mum, singing "Englishmen Never Make Love By Day", while two sets of home movies, one black and white and one colour, converge to show an adulterous overlap. The song acquired an orchestral accompaniment, and Caron's tentative warmth acquires an affecting resonance as the past unfolds itself.

In his club and television work, Lee Evans makes no bones about coming across as the love-child of Norman Wisdom, so it's disconcerting to see him cast as the love-child of Jerry Lewis (and Oliver Platt could only be the love-child of James Mason). Funny Bones is too much of an ensemble piece for Evans to be the star, or to have a real prospect of stealing the film. He has his moments (verbally in an interview with a psychiatrist, physically, in a raid on a mortuary) but Peter Chelsom is more interested in establishing a democracy of moments, and in putting background faces in the centre of his picture. The lawyer, for instance, whom Tommy employs to take care of the legal side of his comedy asset-stripping, is played by Christopher Greet, who made his debut in The Bridge on the River Kwai and hasn't exactly been ubiquitous since then. He has an extraordinarily sweet presence, and it's fascinating to watch him and Oliver Platt, herbivore and carnivore, share the screen.

The film's arch-herbivores, though, are the Parker brothers, Jack's father and uncle. Bruno Parker (Freddie Davies) looks more like Eraserhead's dad than Jack's, with his vertical mop of hair and the softly blank way he meets the camera's eye. Jack's Uncle Thomas (George Carl) who hasn't spoken for 12 years, looks like a mourner at Max Wall's funeral. When he finally breaks silence, or rather lurches into speech, it is with a series of portentous garbled statements about comedy - something about pain, sunrise, darkness and the tides - but there is still a sense of something extraordinary happening, as when Chaplin's Tramp first made verbal noises on screen.

The screenplay insists again and again on the darkness of comedy, on its roots in the painful and the cruel. Jack Parker is supposed to have killed someone on stage. Even sweet-natured Bruno is called upon to say, "I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible, that didn't cause pain." I am sorry, but since when did Buster Keaton have to shoulder the burdens of Lenny Bruce? In fact Funny Bones makes it clear that there are two kinds of comedy, and not the two kinds it keeps describing (people who are naturally funny - people with funny BONES - and people who have to work at it).

Funny Bones is actually a paean to the humble, the innocent, the unassuming, qualities characterised as English. The Americans in the film have lost their innocence, although that is another way of saying that they are sexually adult. (There is no love interest in the film, and the English characters are without exception child-like.) American comedy is a suave form of aggression or at least of self-promotion: English comedy is a release from self, is pure play. When the Parker brothers come out of retirement near the end of Funny Bones, viewers may find themselves thrilling to the sheer pantomime preposterousness of the event, but they're also likely to wonder at a British film released in 1995 so hell-bent on regression, and at themselves for enjoying it.

n On release from tomorrow

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