What are Jerry Lewis, Leslie Caron, Ruta Lee and Harold Nicholas doing in the same film?
They and a similar contingent of British stalwarts are lending stellar support to two young actors, Oliver Platt and Lee Evans, in "Funny Bones," the free-wheeling, risk-taking and altogether striking comedy from "Hear My Song's" Peter Chelsom.
With echoes of "Broadway Danny Rose," "The Sunshine Boys," "Hellzapoppin," plus touches of Fellini and Marcel Marceau, it heart-tugs while asking us to consider what's funny and why. A bold brew of show-biz schmaltz and serious inquiry, it's frequently hilarious, sometimes in an exceedingly dark and even surreal manner. Not everyone who loved the inviting, easy-going Irish blarney of "Hear My Song," however, is likely to connect with the wonderful weirdness of "Funny Bones."
Once past an opening credit sequence so bizarre you wonder if you're in the wrong theater, "Funny Bones" cuts to Las Vegas, where Platt's Tommy Fawkes is about to make his Strip debut before a crowd that includes his father, George Fawkes (Lewis), a fabled comic, and glamorous mother (Lee). Tap-dancing legend Nicholas is his opening act, and George can't resist coming onto the stage to warm up the audience. The overwhelmed Tommy--whose pompadour hairstyle makes him resemble the young Conway Twitty--finally comes out, tries a few jokes that he might have gotten by with at a comedy club, and flees, having bombed with atomic proportions.
Tommy surfaces in Blackpool, the irresistibly seedy and fanciful Atlantic City of England, where he spent the first six, very happy years of his life with his parents. Something tells him that tapping into what's left of music hall, the British equivalent of vaudeville, will give him a clue as to how to succeed as a comedian. As he auditions, with a certain arrogance, a series of vintage performers, many in their 70s and 80s (and maybe more), he has no idea what he's bargained for. He's set himself up to learn, not just about the sources of humor, more about himself and his father, and about life itself than he could ever have imagined.
Among the many people he encounters are Caron's Katie Parker, a family friend and former neighbor, her son Jack (Evans) and Katie's ex-husband Bruno (Freddie Davis) and brother-in-law Thomas (George Carl). Although they haven't worked in 12 years, Bruno and Thomas are a legendary show business team, a classic mime act. (Davis and Carl, not a team, are themselves beloved veterans in Britain.) Katie is a magician with endearingly campy Cleopatra trappings and Jack is a mime of astonishing brilliance and daring. Jack is also a wanted man, in a subplot that's a bit elusive, suggesting that there's been some cutting; press notes, for example, suggest that much of Oliver Reed's eccentric bad guy and his henchmen landed on the cutting-room floor.
Platt and Evans are formidable finds, young men with range and panache, and gratifyingly Chelsom has provided Lewis and Caron with major roles. Radiant and earthy, Caron sings "Englishmen Never Make Love by Day" with wisdom and elan, and she serves as the film's forthright artistic conscience. In recent years, Poland's Krzysztof Zanussi and France's Louis Malle have put Caron's dramatic abilities to good use; Chelsom does that and more: He gives her the chance to sing and dance as well.
Playing close to himself with a winning candor, Lewis shows us George's massive, endlessly competitive ego but also a genuine love for Tommy, and the movie's big moment of truth is delivered by Lewis in a terse, direct style. Among the film's many sterling British players are those hefty funnymen Richard Griffiths and Ian McNeice. At once giddy and substantial, "Funny Bones," which makes an inspired use of expertly staged flashbacks, is distinctive in the manner of Richard Rush's "The Stuntman," a film that it oddly recalls.
* MPAA rating: R, for some language, and a scene of tragic violence. Times guidelines: The humor is often dark-hued; the language is not unusually crude.
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'Funny Bones' Oliver Platt: Tommy Fawkes Jerry Lewis: George Fawkes Leslie Caron: Katie Birdie Lee Evans: Jack Parker A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures production. Director Peter Chelsom. Producers Simon Fields, Chelsom. Screenplay by Chelsom, Peter Flannery. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Editor Martin Walsh. Costumes Lindy Hemming. Music John Altman. Production designer Caroline Hanania. Art director Andrew Munro. Set decorator Tracey Gallacher. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.