Mind Blowing Movies: Funny Bones, by Bill Barol

Mm200Recently, Boing Boing presented a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. We are extending the series. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series. -- Mark

Mind Blowing Movies: Funny Bones, by Bill Barol

[Video Link] 1995’s Funny Bones, by the British writer/director Peter Chelsom, is either a comedy about dark things, like betrayal and manslaughter, or a drama about funny people, like a pair of retired vaudevillians who are winding down their days scaring children in the spook house on the Blackpool amusement pier. I’ve seen the movie, conservatively, two dozen times and I still don’t quite know how to describe it. I’ve never shown it to anybody who didn’t turn to me at least once with an incredulous look in their eyes, a look that says: “What the hell is this?”

This is exactly what I love about Funny Bones -- it is sui generis, and impossible to boil down. I can tell you the broad outlines: Failed standup Tommy Fawkes, the son of revered funnyman George Fawkes, flees Las Vegas and returns to the tattered seaside town of Blackpool where he grew up, in search of the indefinable substance that makes people funny. Once there he discovers that he has a half-brother he never knew, and that this odd, shy sibling is the unwilling recipient of the comedy genes, the funny bones, that Tommy so desperately desires. But those few quick strokes really -- you have to believe me -- they really don’t do justice to this odd, dark, deeply funny and witheringly sad story, or to the faded netherworld of fringe show business in which Tommy finds himself, casting frantically about for something to keep him from going under. Nor does it prepare you for an ending in which (I won’t spoil it) Tommy’s life literally dangles from his half-brother’s hands as a rapt, horrified audience looks on. Or for the lump in your throat when the story’s threads of desire, comedy, tragedy, love and hate interlock in one breathtaking final shot.

The Cliff’s Notes version of Funny Bones also does nothing to prepare you for the performances of Oliver Platt as Tommy, the great and eccentric British comic Lee Evans as his half-brother, and -- I know, I know -- Jerry Lewis as the semi-retired but still-formidable George Fawkes. (“George Fawkes,” a Blackpuddlian murmurs when Tommy drops the name. “I thought he died in Las Vegas.” Nope, Tommy tells him: “Idied in Las Vegas.”) People who talk about how great Lewis was in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” have almost invariably not seen him top that dramatic turn in Funny Bones, playing a father whose pain at having to tell his son the worst, most hurtful truth he can imagine -- that he’s just not funny -- almost tears him apart. Later, having been proved wrong, the look of fatherly pride in Lewis’s eyes is incandescent. It’s a fabulous star turn.

The DVD packaging for Funny Bones burbles about how it’s a “zany look at two comedians who’ll do anything for a laugh!” You have to feel for the poor schlub who got the draw to write the copy. Like pretty much everybody who sees it, he probably didn’t know how to encompass its polar extremes in one sentence. My recollection is that both critics and audiences were more or less baffled when the film had a brief run in theaters back in the mid-Nineties. This is a totally appropriate reaction, of course, because in addition to everything above Funny Bones includes Raymond Scott music, a severed foot, some French fishermen playing spy, a few venerable old burlesque sketches and Leslie Caron as Cleopatra. That it hangs together at all is amazing. That it ends up tackling some very big things, and doing it with wit and grace and huge laughs, is absolutely unbelievable. But it does. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You really should see it.

[video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EE1wCo3N6As]


  1. FUNNYBONES is a great, great film. I don’t find it quite as indescribable as you do, but I agree that it is a unique little creature sandwiched between mid-90’s hits such as CLERKS and PULP FICTION on the video store shelves. It’s basically a drama about a person having to accept he’s not good at something he spent his whole life pursuing- but the narrative doesn’t follow a conventional route, and it’s those quirky moments that make it so wonderful. And, like you said, the acting. Saying Jerry Lewis is better here than he is in KING OF COMEDY is a little bit of over-hype- after all, he’s a minor character in this film and a major one in Scorcese’s- but he is great here as well. I’d just hate for anyone to watch this now expecting something as epic as the performance Mr. Lewis gave there. 

    The video packaging can be blamed on fucking Disney, who applied the same generic template formula design on everything they controlled- which includes Miramax. I worked at a video store back in the day and had to witness the same hackwork on a weekly basis from those idiots. Many a great movie got buried and ignored because it looked like a bag of shit shoved into a VHS case!

    1. I’ve always thought it was a travesty how awful movie boxes typically are; I mean I know it’s hard to boil a movie down to box size in a way that will sell but in most cases I think it’d be better if they just put the movie poster on the cover (they still don’t do this, instead putting a photoshop hack job that took five minutes on instead) and called it a day. Maybe a few lines suggesting what it’s about on the back, but none of the vapid hyperbole and misrepresentation.

      They make it so much worse by doing it the way they do, and it must result in fewer sales and rentals for harder-to-sell films like this. I watched hundreds of films from the local library when I was younger that all had this stupid zero-cost marketing, and every time I was surprised at the quality of the movie (even the bad ones) – the stupid stuff they write vastly lowers your expectations. Huh… maybe that’s their strategy after all :)

  2. One of my happiest career memories is having been in this movie. 99% of my scenes got cut (although you can still see me at the back of a couple of shots), but I had a very fun few days shooting.

    I wrote about it here: http://matricardo.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/long-time-ago-i-was-in-jerry-lewis-film.html

  3. take it to the edge …

    one of my alltime favorite movies. never understood why lee evans didn’t go on to stardom, but he and oliver platt (and the rest) are brilliant. some of the best physical comedy ever filmed – at least in color.


  4. “never understood why Lee Evans didn’t go on to stardom”

    Depends on your definition of stardom; he’s done standup tours to huge audiences, sold millions of copies of DVDs of said shows, stage work (like lead in The Producers opposite Nathan Lane).  Not international stardom, but not exactly chopped liver, either

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