Funny Bones (United Kingdom/United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Funny Bones is anything but what the title suggests. As a comedy, this movie is a complete flop, with fewer laughs than the average mindless sitcom. As a drama, it isn't much more successful. Writer/director Peter Chelsom, who brought us 1992's magical Hear My Song, here gives us an array of offbeat characters who lack any semblance of three-dimensionality. They all have their little quirks, but none is able to engage our attention or sympathy.

For the most part, Funny Bones is flat. Even the presence of funny man Jerry Lewis, still as energetic and zany as ever, can't liven up these proceedings. The story doesn't allow for much light humor, preferring instead to dwell on long-buried family secrets, and the tone has only two modes: dismal and grim. While this might be the proper mood for a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, the actual story turns out to be rather unspectacular -- not to mention muddled.

Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt) is an up-and-coming comedian about to go on stage for his big Las Vegas debut. On hand are his mother, Laura (Ruta Lee), and father, George (Jerry Lewis), a world-famous comic. From the beginning, Tommy's evening is a disaster. No one's laughing at his jokes and he's becoming progressively more desperate. Finally, after the spectacular failure of one gag, Tommy walks off the stage after informing his audience that he has only two weeks to live (this is a metaphorical, not factual, statement).

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a transaction is taking place between two ships. A group of Englishmen, led by an unscrupulous policeman named Stanley Sharkey (Ian McNeice), is buying six mysterious "eggs" from four Frenchman. Sharkey's party has no intention of playing fair, however, and things get ugly. One of the French crew is killed; one of the English, Jack Parker (Lee Evans), is hung out to dry by his companions; and an egg is lost. Jack, a strong swimmer, manages to make his way to shore. Once on solid land, his emotional instability gets the better of him and he climbs the Blackpool tower, threatening to kill himself. He is talked down through the efforts of his father (Freddie Davis), uncle (George Carl), mother (Leslie Caron), and a dog called Toast.

Fresh from his Las Vegas failure, Tommy arrives in Blackpool, intending to find and buy funny acts to convert for his own use. After witnessing dozens of embarrassing performances, Tommy is introduced to the Parker Brothers -- two aging gentlemen with a "unique" slapstick act. Things are not as straightforward as they first seem, however, and in getting to know the Parkers, Tommy is forced to confront unpleasant truths about himself and his famous father.

Anyone who has seen a Vaudeville act knows that, like the routines of standup comics, they're a lot more funny in person than on camera. In fact, it takes an extremely talented performer to effectively translate a portion of the spontaneous humor to the screen. In Funny Bones, while the cast is comprised of accomplished actors, no one exhibits this ability. Unfortunately, more than one quarter of the film is devoted to Vaudeville performances, and these sequences are more often tedious than diverting.

As lifeless as the slapstick routines are, a solidly-dramatic script could have salvaged Funny Bones. Alas, there isn't one. Oh, there are a few clever lines here and there, and one or two thought provoking ideas, but little is done with any of the better elements. Character development is routine and the narrative often strays onto odd tangents. By the time the overlong story sputters to a close, only a few loose ends have been tied off, and you're unlikely to care about the ones left unresolved. This motion picture is a disjointed, messy affair, and a disappointment to those who had been looking forward to this director's sophomore effort.

Funny Bones (United Kingdom/United States, 1995)

Director: Peter Chelsom
Cast: Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, Leslie Caron, Freddie Davies, George Carl, Jerry Lewis, Ruta Lee
Screenplay: Peter Chelsom and Peter Flannery
Cinematography: Eduardo Serra
Music: John Altman
U.S. Distributor: Hollywood Pictures
Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 1995-03-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: