UK Release Date: 27th August 2018
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Adrian Shergold
Writer: Tony Pitts
Starring: Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Tony Pitts, Alun Armstrong, Lindsey Coulson, Hebe Beardsall, Stephen Graham, Kevin Eldon
Synopsis: A woman escapes an abusive relationship and works her way to stardom through the unforgiving and misogynistic 1970s stand-up comedy circuit in Northern England.
Movies about stand-up comedy are surprisingly uncommon given the prominence of the art form, particularly today when just about anyone who has ever told a joke has a one-hour special on Netflix. The Big Sick springs to mind recently and obviously Martin Scorsese‘s masterpiece The King of Comedy is an all-time classic of the genre. This year has brought us a very British take on the stand-up comedy world with Funny Cow, which follows a female comic working her way up through the wildly misogynistic Northern circuit in the 1970s.
The titular ‘Funny Cow’, known only by that name throughout the film, is Maxine Peake‘s dreamer, hardened by years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father (Stephen Graham) and husband Bob (Tony Pitts, the movie’s writer). She is immediately drawn to comedy when she sees ‘Master of Mirth’ Lenny (Alun Armstrong) perform at a working men’s club, where his early puns fall on deaf ears, only for bluer gags and racist jokes to get the audience going. She enlists Lenny as something of a mentor figure en route to a talent competition, while also leaving Bob in order to pursue a relationship with sweet but pretentious bookshop owner Angus (Paddy Considine).
This is an incredibly strange movie and one that never quite seems sure whether it wants us to like the central character or not. Peake plays Cow as a complex character, whose turbulent life makes her sympathetic, but that sympathy is constantly tempered by the way she treats other people, most notably Considine’s intellectual – a man she is attracted to, but resents for the ways his interests differ to hers. It’s a great performance by Peake and a brave one, delving into dark recesses of a character driven only by her desire to make it.
Much of the tonal problems Peake must grapple with come from Pitts’s script. It’s a clear love letter to the cigarette smoke and sweat of 1970s working class England, but one that doesn’t pull any punches in depicting its more troubling elements. Unfortunately, it never shows any progression from those more problematic viewpoints, even though we are offered glimpses of Peake later in her life, used to tie together her life inspirations and her subsequent comedy. The darker moments of the story – including one genuinely horrifying scene in a toilet cubicle – sit awkwardly with the lighter touches, with cameos for comedians John Bishop and Vic Reeves as disastrous talent show auditionees standing out as cringe comedy highlights.
There are plenty of moving parts in Funny Cow, and many of those parts could well have been used to assemble a very good film. However, writer Pitts and director Adrian Shergold struggle to make those parts fit together in a coherent way. Maxine Peake’s central performance is a whirlwind that the structure of the story cannot control and, as a result, she is done a disservice by a film that, while intermittently very good, is ultimately a slight disappointment.
There’s a short making of doc, as well as a pretty sizeable bounty of deleted scenes and the very effective original teaser short made for the movie, which was shot back in 2012 and is arguably better at conveying Peake’s character than the finished film itself.
Pop or Poop?
Maxine Peake shines as a Northern woman who turns her suffering into success in Funny Cow. The film around her, though, seems unsure of its own tone and pinballs wildly between finding comedy in period detail and wallowing in violence and tragedy. There’s barely a single likeable character to be found, but there are real flashes of genius and, when the film feels like it’s under the control of those making it, it lands like a perfectly crafted punchline.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Funny Cow is available on DVD in the UK now, courtesy of eOne UK.