You won’t see this punchline coming
Sometimes, you’ll be so enthralled by a movie while watching it, you won’t notice how odd it was until the lights come up, the screen dims and you make your way out of the theatre. It’s only then that you start to think, ‘What did I just watch?’
I tend to attribute this disconcerting reaction to brilliant performers at the top of their games. Funny Cow is like this. I hardly noticed its confusing structure and maddening jerks in tone because I was transfixed by actors like Maxine Peake as the titular Funny Cow, Paddy Considine as her aggressively middle-class, bookshop-owning boyfriend and professional depressive Alun Armstrong as a washed-up, cynical stand-up.
Funny Cow is a largely unfunny movie about comedy, and as anyone who’s seen a few movies about comedians will know, the best movies about the craft of comedy are the least funny ones. They get under the skin of the performers and expose their needs to tell jokes.
Peake leads as a woman not given a name, though she’s often referred to as ‘Funny Cow’. An early stand-up clip reveals her near-misanthropic demeanour, as she’s smoking a cigarette and smirking into the microphone. She talks about a boy in school who bragged his dad could beat up her dad and her response is, ‘F*ckin’ hell, when?’
Her Dad is played by the reliably unhinged Stephen Graham, who wallops her with his belt when she refuses to make him a tea. Graham also plays her brother when she’s older, which is one of the film’s many oddities that comes unexpectedly. It lends the film a not entirely welcome surrealistic tinge to the Kitchen Sink realism of the protagonist’s tale and upsetting subject matter.
The film is split into ‘bits’, signifying turns in the story, and it jumps back and forth between Funny Cow’s childhood (here she’s credited as ‘Funny Calf’, played by Macy Shackleton), and at one point the older Funny Cow meets her younger self. Contrast this with the embittered comedian Lenny (Armstrong), whose story is one of heartbreaking disenchantment with the craft of comedy, next to Angus (Considine) whose middle-class tastes are parodically overstated.
All in all, the film gives viewers no holds to grab onto and no tagline to use to sell it to their friends. However, given the chaotic trajectory of Funny Cow’s life, thrown from abuser to abuser and unable to settle down even when she finds comfort, there’s a vicarious effect the movie has on the audience, a kind of communicative dysphoria that strengthens the viewer’s bond to the protagonist.
Irksomely structured and brilliantly performed, Funny Cow is no joke—so don’t expect to see the punchline coming.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
Funny Cow will be released in cinemas 26 July.
Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Ned & Co.
Image credit: Hollywood Reporter