Helen Tope reviews Funny Cow, a film with real depth beneath the punchline, that tells the story of a female comedian’s struggle to break away from her past. It’s showing in our cinema until 31 May.
Brought up in the post-war slums of Northern England, Funny Cow is marked as an outsider from the start. Bright, mouthy and unapologetically so, Funny Cow decides to play up her point of difference and uses humour to push through the pain in her life. Her childhood is dominated by a dysfunctional, alcoholic mother, and shocking episodes of domestic violence, meted out by Stephen Graham (playing a dual role as Father and Brother). Funny Cow leaves the family home early, marrying Bob (Funny Cow’s screenwriter Tony Pitts), who proves to be as much of a brute as her Dad.
Possessing an indomitable spirit, Funny Cow seeks out a mentor and finds him in Lenny (a brilliant Alun Armstrong); a washed-up, old-school comedian doing the local club circuit. Funny Cow watches him on stage, and is transformed. Her ambition becomes crystallised, and she pursues Lenny to find out the tricks of the trade.
Funny Cow takes her life and projects it onto the stage. Sequins to hide the bruising, high-glamour make-up to bring her femininity to the surface. Funny Cow’s act is a blend of personal experience and tried-and-tested formula, even pinching lines from Lenny himself. She learns quickly – a good woman always has a put-down at the ready – and adapts to what the audience like. It separates her from her mentor, who is unable to step outside his performance, delivering the same material night after night. We are at the tail end of the 1970’s, and good comics are leaving the working men’s clubs and making the move to television. Funny Cow is perfectly poised to become a star.
In her rise to the top, she meets bookseller Angus (Paddy Considine) who introduces her to literature, good wine and evenings at the theatre. But Funny Cow, by her own admission, is no Eliza Doolittle, and balks at the quiet desperation of Angus’ middle-class existence. Funny Cow’s journey out of the slums is best travelled alone.
We see Funny Cow’s success not through the expected montage of struggle and perseverance, but in her visits back home. The car she drives is a fancy sporty number, and her clothes become more luxurious, always in her preferred colour palette of red. The film jumps between her past and present, doing its best to avoid the cliches of biopic.
With a performance that melds her comic timing with a gift for high drama, Maxine Peake evokes a character reminiscent of the female comics from the 1980’s, in particular, Marti Caine. The tight, peroxide curls, the accent on glamour and her ability to deliver a one-liner whilst blinking back the tears – Peake takes us back to an era where being funny and female meant a fight just to be heard.
But Funny Cow isn’t limited to being a period piece. The idea that women “just aren’t funny” persists, and women who break through now have the added bonus of negotiating the torrent of online abuse that comes with celebrity. The Twitter accounts of Susan Calman and Sue Perkins (gay, female and funny) are testament to how much hatred there is out there for women who dare to make money telling jokes.
Fame for women, and especially funny women, remains a battle and staying at the top requires nerves of steel. The expectations of women to play by the rules – be pretty, be malleable, be brief – to this day guarantees an easier route into showbiz. Funny Cow shows how little has actually changed.
The allegations recently made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein are a depressing reminder that far too many men – regardless of their talent or ability – are holding the cards. The acerbic wit that is Funny Cow’s trademark has been honed, punch by punch. It is a voice that is not entirely her own, and the fury we hear in Peake’s delivery is built on the mediocrity of the men she encounters.
The film’s strength is in its ability to see the contradictions within the comedy business. The tone throughout is a daring game, switching between the bleakest of circumstance, and the comedy that can be wrung from it. Domestic violence, suicide, alcoholism – nothing is spared, and the camera examines them with an unflinching gaze. It is up to us to find the humanity. With a breath-taking performance from Lindsey Coulson, Funny Cow’s relationship with her mother begins to heal in the third act. There is something to be salvaged from the ashes.
The American screenwriter Nora Ephron said “everything is copy” – the hurt, the trauma – let it live on the page. But Funny Cow goes one stage further, and suggests that without trauma and the hurt, there is no copy at all. One needs the other in order to exist. It is this uneasy resolution that elevates the film – no easy answers, no answers at all, just jokes. Funny Cow isn’t a film that rests on the lure of nostalgia, but instead tries to examine what makes us laugh, and why. The openly offensive jokes of the 1970’s have fallen out of favour, but our taste for near-the-knuckle comedy has never gone away. We may think we are a more sophisticated audience, but the reality is we still enjoy a joke at someone else’s expense. There is a dark satisfaction in being on the other side of the screen.
Funny Cow goes further than telling us a rags-to-riches story, beyond even the politics of the female comic. Comedy; the ability to laugh – at anything, through anything – is how we survive. The film doesn’t make a judgement on this point, merely illustrating that we are not as socially evolved as we think. The best comedy is always a self-portrait, but what Funny Cow highlights, with devastating effect, is that the audience is the subject and the artist. The comic merely reflects what they see.
Bleak to the point of bitterness, Funny Cow may be a period film, but in its study of the comedian and their audience, it is absolutely of the moment, and deadly accurate.