Comedy is dangerous, "Funny Bones" tells us. The darker its core, the brighter its humor. And "Funny Bones" fulfills that dichotomous ideal: It's both midnight-black and brilliantly funny.
The movie lacks an obvious direction at first. It opens in the sea outside Blackpool, England, where young Jack (Lee Evans) is abandoned after a deal-gone-bad for some mysterious wax eggs. "I'm gonna die!" he screams, foundering in the ocean.
This peculiar plot, which nearly vanishes thereafter, and the script's initial meandering may be the film's only flaws. Jack's life soon intertwined with that of Tommy Fawkes, an edgy comic played by Oliver Platt ("Indecent Proposal," "The Three Musketeers") who can't escape the shadow of his famous comedian father (Jerry Lewis). "I'm gonna die," he says before he goes on in Las Vegas, with his dad in the audience.
Unable to exploit his obvious despair, as a better comedian might, Tommy tells his joke writer in the dressing room that he has only two weeks to live. But is he kidding? He talks about being on the edge, but he doesn't know how to get there, as is apparent when he braves the stage. He can think of only one place to find answers to his crisis: colorful resort town Blackpool, where he spent the first six years of his life.
There he meets the Parker family of performers, whose lives, unknown to him, are inextricably linked with his. Jack Parker (Evans), an uncannily natural comedian, is the heir to all their talent and all their doom: His tormented past seethes under every riveting move.
The aging Parker brothers, who have put their act aside and now subsist by posing in a horror-house tableau, evoke screams of terror from fun-house thrill-seekers. Why are these mild-mannered merrymakers, played with deadpan skill by Freddie Davies and George Carl, so scary? Obviously, the customers see something surprisingly sinister under the skin.
"Funny Bones" is full of secrets and wonderful performances, all set against the amusement-park cacophony of Blackpool. A moment of hilarity is followed by a revelation that's downright creepy. A gloomy mortuary becomes the setting for a screamingly funny confrontation. At every turn, we're reminded of how close to the cliff these comics tread.
The movie's finale, in the circus ring, is hair-raising: Is it an act or is it real? The audience thinks it's just an act, but the performers know that when you're this close to fear and hilarity and madness, the act is always real.
Fine performances from Jerry Lewis, who's playing a man who resembles himself, and a temperate Leslie Caron enrich this refreshing film. With several smaller parts behind him, the likable Oliver Platt makes the most of his leading role, and British comedian Lee Evans as Jack is very good in his feature film debut.
The supporting cast is full of kaleidoscopic life, as is Blackpool, an offbeat character in itself. The playful, evocative music, from Charles Trenet's "La Mer" to Duke Ellington's "Caravan" to Ravel's "Bolero," threads the story together.
Director Peter Chelsom ("Hear My Song"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Flannery, is walking a tightrope with every moment of his film, under a glittering big top. As daring as its characters, "Funny Bones" is exhilarating.
Directed by Peter Chelsom
Starring Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, Jerry Lewis and Leslie Caron
Released by Hollywood Pictures
Rated R (language, violence)