Funny Cow proves that movies about comedians just aren't funny

by Peter Calder / 03 August, 2018
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Based in the 70s and 80s, Funny Cow charts the rise of a female comedian in northern England.

Movies about comedians are seldom funny. The good ones (Lenny; The King of Comedy) are, like the best comics, more acutely sensitive than the rest of us to the tragic banality of life. This film, set and shot in the grimier urban landscapes of Yorkshire, does nothing to disprove the rule. Its unprepossessing title is the name the main character is given by someone recommending her for a stand-up gig (we never learn her real name). She’s played by the nimble and versatile Maxine Peake in a performance that adds a deliberately sour note to a rags-to-riches story.

In his cinematic debut, director Adrian Shergold, a TV veteran (his most notable film, Pierrepoint, starring Timothy Spall as a famous British executioner, was released theatrically here) and writer Tony Pitts conscientiously fracture the chronology.

We know early on that Funny Cow has done all right, because she’s wearing nice clothes and driving a red convertible; her catastrophic first audition comes at the film’s midpoint; and we flick between childhood and different stages in adulthood with dizzying speed. It lends an element of unpredictability to the narrative, though it flirts with incoherence – her brother’s standoffishness and her sister-in-law’s hostility are never explained.

Trapped in a loveless marriage to a man (played by Pitts) as brutally angry as her father was, she is entranced by the performance of “master of mirth” Lenny Lennon, though quite why is never clear, since he’s a has-been one-liner comic abused by his dwindling audiences (he calls himself “a comedic zombie”).

“I want to do what you do,” she tells him, explaining that she can’t manage “civilian” life. “I don’t have a backbone, but I do have a funny bone,” she says. “It’s not a job for a woman,” he replies. “Women aren’t funny.”

That’s plainly untrue, but it’s hard to find Peake’s character very funny at all, because she’s never given anything funny to say. The only memorable stand-up sequence has her dealing, effectively but neither subtly nor skilfully, with a heckler.

Most of the movie’s on-stage performance sequences are rueful ruminations on the nature of her life, apparently being filmed for television. They’re not even slightly funny, but more problematically, they’re not strikingly illuminating, either. In the end, Funny Cow and Funny Cow are not terribly interesting. As a character piece, it is going through the motions, and as a comedy, it dies quietly.  

Video: Entertainment One UK

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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