Homage, memory and unabashed zaniness infect "Funny Bones." It's a tour de force for filmmaker Peter Chelsom, who chronicles a complex saga of vaudeville and shtick, pathos and absurdity. One can only quarrel with the density of the effort, which stuffs far too much story and sideshow into its modest frame.

Homage, memory and unabashed zaniness infect “Funny Bones.” It’s a tour de force for filmmaker Peter Chelsom, who chronicles a complex saga of vaudeville and shtick, pathos and absurdity. One can only quarrel with the density of the effort, which stuffs far too much story and sideshow into its modest frame.

Despite its nods to the gallery, the film essentially has upscale appeal. Its draw as a specialized venture should be relatively easy. The challenge will be in selling pic’s broad-based elements and conveying the offbeat charm of newcomer Lee Evans, a dynamo of antic comic versatility. Commercial prospects are therefore likely to be erratic.

Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt) is the belligerent son of comedy icon George Fawkes (Jerry Lewis). Attempting to carve out a unique niche in the standup arena, he bombs spectacularly in Vegas with his father as a prime witness.

So Tommy sets out to reinvent himself and heads to Blackpool, England, the seaside entertainment resort where he was raised until the age of 6 and where his father had his first success. Tommy believes the area is rife with novel entertainment ideas. But the performers he auditions are largely a string of freak-show attractions from a bygone era, with one key exception — the Parker family and, principally, son Jack (Evans).

The knotty dilemma confronting young Fawkes is that the Parker repertoire is akin to routines that established his father as an original voice. It’s obvious to him that the British vaudevillians were robbed. The situation darkens further with the news that Jack is his half-brother, the result of a brief liaison between George and Katie (Leslie Caron).

Also rumbling beneath the surface is the fact that Jack is a natural and Tommy never quite connects with his brand of humor. The bizarre twist is that Jack killed a man in the course of a routine that went amok.

Chelsom attempts to juggle and unify a broad spectrum of ideas and tones, and largely succeeds, using some inexplicable sleight of hand. As with his earlier “Hear My Song,” the relative modesty of the physical production is offset by big emotions that rise to a deafening crescendo in the film’s closing section. His keen sense of character paves over narrative bumps and sharp emotional turns.

Still, he’s occasionally undone by his fascination with the performance pieces. The command performance that forms the finale is too much concert footage at the expense of the dramatic flow.

Though Evans’ character is subordinate, his emotional impact dominates the tale. Besides his obvious physical dexterity, he conveys a smoldering passion that’s exhilarating. That leaves Platt with the short end in an essentially unsympathetic part, and a characterization that’s difficult to warm to even considering the circumstances.

The large supporting cast is dotted with little gems, including Brit stage vets George Carl and Freddie Davies as the eccentric and enchanting Parker Brothers. Caron and Lewis are magical in roles that blur the boundaries of their real and screen personae.

Handsomely mounted, the picture is greatly enhanced by the seascapes and concert footage of cameraman Eduardo Serra. Its original score is inventive and dotted with vintage tunes.

“Funny Bones” is an amusement park ride whose demands are often exhausting. But the experience culminates on a heady, spiritually satisfying note.

Funny Bones

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation. Produced by Simon Fields, Peter Chelsom. Executive producer, Nicholas Frye. Directed by Chelsom. Screenplay by Chelsom, Peter Flannery.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Eduardo Serra; editor, Martin Walsh; music, John Altman; production design, Caroline Hanania; art direction, Andrew Munroe; costume design, Lindy Hemmings; sound (Dolby), Bill Daly; assistant director, Mike Zimbich; casting, Artz & Cohen. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (noncompeting), Park City, Jan. 24, 1995. Running time: 126 MIN.

With

Tommy Fawkes - Oliver Platt
Jack Parker - Lee Evans
Jim Minty - Richard Griffith
Katie Parker - Leslie Caron
George Fawkes - Jerry Lewis
Dolly Hopkins - Oliver Reed
Stanley Sharkey - Ian McNeice
Thomas Parker - George Carl
Bruno Parker - Freddie Davies
Laura Fawkes - Ruta Lee
Harold Nicholas - Himself
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