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Comedy is not pretty, Steve Martin famously said. Funny Bones—a delightful mid-’90s oddity starring character actor Oliver Platt as the ungifted offspring of a comic legend played by Jerry Lewis—amends that a bit. Comedy is beautiful, it seems to tell us, but not in the way we expect. Comedy is at its essence the confrontation and convolution of all that horrifies and confounds, our sadness turned ass end up, a map of our despair with all the theme parks circled.
In other words, comedy is Blackpool, the grey and fading tourist town on England’s northwest coast known for its amusements and football club that serves as Funny Bones’ setting and defines its essence. In Funny Bones, Blackpool is just that, a kind of primordial ooze from which comedy first crawled, gasping for higher consciousness. This is a hamlet teeming with plate-throwers, donkey acts, and gone-to-seed vaudevillians who get their jollies running in the haunted house rides to scare the tourists. For Platt’s Tommy Fawkes, a Vegas flame-out convinced he has weeks to live, the place is also his last stand for redemption. He comes to the town, a place he spent a few idyllic years of his youth, in disguise and in search of a true spark of humor, that ineffable and inspired light that he himself is missing.
What he finds is Jack, an addle-brained would-be criminal played with spirited nonsense by manic British stand-up Lee Evans, one of England’s most electric comic exports. Eventually, Tommy learns that Jack is his half brother, the product of a torrid love affair between Lewis’ George and a local actress who specializes in Cleopatra, played with ethereal compassion by the French dancer screen legend Leslie Caron. Really, he just needs to see a few moments of his act to know that George’s blood runs through him.
There are plots afoot, one involving a corrupt police officer and some crooks seeking a wax egg filled with a mysterious substance that promises extended youth, as well as some business involving a couple of severed feet. If it all sounds a bit cute, I assure you it’s not. Funny Bones comes off as profoundly personal on behalf of its Blackpool-born director (odd that Chelsom’s career would go on to include such credits as Hannah Montana: The Movie). But cute? No movie that features Jerry Lewis standing on a beach telling his comedian son that he isn’t funny could ever be branded as such.
Lewis is terrific in that scene, but then this is a film where every corner is painted with tremendous actors of every stripe, from vaudevillian clowns like George Carl to monsters of British cinema like Oliver Reed. But it is Platt, given one of the few starring roles in a career that has brightened the margins of TV procedurals and movies both indie and Hollywood, who stirs the drink. His verve and focus, his vulnerability hidden beneath an unstoppable drive to get to the next scene, keeps the film’s sometimes careening amalgam of ideas on track.
In the end, Funny Bones, while never less than accessible, is gloriously undefinable. Is it a dark drama about light comedy? A light comedy about matters too grave for most dramas? What’s clear is that the subjects it dares tackle—betrayal and redemption, murder and pratfalls—are all severe and unforgiving matters. Yes, comedy is beautiful, and it’s also the cruelest, most truthful, way to get to the heart of what matters most.