Funny Bones (Blu-ray Review)9 Oct, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$14.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Oliver Platt, Jerry Lewis, Lee Evans, Leslie Caron, Oliver Reed.
I’d been kind of kicking myself for not getting to Funny Bones on Blu-ray closer to its street date a few weeks ago, but now it’s worked out because sometimes subsequent real-life events can make a good movie (and this one’s even better than that) significantly better or certainly more resonant. A drama about professional comedy that also deals with strained relationships involving progeny, Bones can now be viewed with recent knowledge a significantly featured player (Jerry Lewis) ended up cutting Gary and all the other real-life sons with first wife Patti out of his will, which seems pretty much beyond the pale on the face of it. Thus, along with his brothers, the onetime headliner of the Playboys, a briefly hit-making mid-’60s rock group, is now being forced to change the name of their act’s second big-seller (“Count Me In”) to “Count Me Out.” On top of this, Bones also deals with a love child, and Jerry went through that situation as well in the tabloids with a young woman whose looks bore a slam-dunk resemblance.
All this probably reveals more about the plot than one possibly ought to, so let’s backtrack to say that Bones was distributed, and surprisingly, by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures — the one that wasn’t Touchstone and put out a lot of Jeffrey Katzenberg wet-dream junk, though a Quiz Show or Nixon or not wholly resistible Mr. Holland’s Opus occasionally found its way into what always felt like an array of Pauly Shore and Bronson Pinchot vehicles. On a very animated commentary by writer/co-director Peter Chelsom and simpatico interviewer Elijah Drenner, Chelsom divulges that Katzenberg shelled out a most generous $8 million budget for a movie set among wall-to-wall eccentrics in Blackpool, U.K. — with Oliver Platt and Lewis to head the marquee while going into some very dark places. Whoa. Well, at least that gave Bones the potential (and one delivered upon) to virtually define a cult movie, and Chelsom notes that Robin Williams ended up calling him out of the blue to say that this was the best movie ever made about the business of comedy.
Platt (a great actor) delivers, and Lewis is basically as good here as he was in The King of Comedy — and yet, the movie’s secret weapon is Lee Evans (on another bonus entry here with Chelsom, discussing the film). He exhibits an onstage comic style here that’s almost impossible to describe — though, like so many of the acts seen here, he’s like something one might have seen on “The Gong Show” had Chuck Barris’s extravaganza celebrated not just “edge” but talent as well. (The Bait Brothers would have fit in at least spiritually with this crew, and by the way, am I the only one who misses the Bait Brothers? — the Barris ones, I mean, and not the Trump Cabinet that goes by the same name.) I can’t find my mothballed ballot from the year, but I’m half-certain that I went for Evans in my 1995 National Society of Film Critics voting and would bet money that he was in my designated top three.
The movie’s title alludes to, and by Lewis in his best scene, the way comedians deliver their lines — though the description could apply just as well to the funny people you’ve known in your life and not just professionals. Some people, always “on,” just naturally have you on the floor with their manner and personas, while others (and I know a few) can say, “May I please have a little extra hot sauce for my Taco Bell?” and have it come out funny in a way Scott Baio couldn’t do. In a role clearly modeled on his own Vegas image, Lewis makes the point that his aspiring standup-comic son (Platt) has neither — though he has effectively destroyed the kid’s on-stage mojo by arriving ringside and advance-sabotaging the performance with all the attention he gets. This reminds of the time in 1965 when Gary introduced the Playboys’ opening-salvo hit “This Diamond Ring” on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and Jerry showed up on stage to kiss him on the lips for national-TV consumption. This probably wasn’t the best way to establish yourself as a player in ’65 rock or make teen/college tastemakers torch their LPs of Bringing It All Back Home for a better alternative. Later, in a self-referential scene that’s “pure Jer,” we see dad on airplane tarmac followed by about 6,700 pieces of luggage — for me, one of the most indelible screen images of the ’90s.
Blackpool, turns out, was Chelsom’s hometown, and he knows its somewhat seedy milieu well; the flashback home we see Lewis and family living in was actually the filmmaker’s real one from his youth. (I’d hate to be wrong on this in print, but I seem to recall that Lewis said at the time that he and Dean Martin played Blackpool early in his career, well before Hal Wallis and Paramount signed them to that long-range movie contract.) Also fitting into this is Leslie Caron (then in her ’60s and still with banzai looks, but — and this was in her book, so Chelsom isn’t telling tales out of school — immediately coming off some kind of real-life emotional breakdown). There’s also Oliver Reed in a wild subplot that doesn’t work — in part, likely due to the trimming of his very strange role due to severe alcoholic problems that did cause set problems and worried Lewis.
As noted, the movie, despite laughs, goes into some very dark byways, which audiences should be allowed to sample for themselves — though I do think Bones needs something better than the familiar freeze-frame ending. For a story that’s in part about verbal deliveries, a lot of points get conveyed pinpoint-cinematically. I’ve always worried that Chelsom, a good director (at least here) took the fall for obscene cost overruns on Warren Beatty’s 2001 Town & Country in ways that maybe hurt his career — and that, in truth, that picture is somewhat better than its rep, with some funny Charlton Heston stuff for one thing. (Beatty and Heston: That must have been a really interesting political mixer.) And getting a nice Kino rendering here is unexpectedly vivid color cinematography by Eduardo Serra, who has worked multiple times with the late Claude Chabrol, Patrice Leconte and, for that matter, Harry Potter.