Funny Cow is a fictional portrait of a female comic rising through the very male dominated comedy circuit in the working men’s clubs of the north in the seventies. Stigma alone to overcome, her biggest battles are to escape her misogynist and violent husband.
Maxine Peake is ‘Funny Cow’ as we are first introduced, we never learn her first name, a theatre sell out stand-up act who can tell a dirty joke. Warming up the crowd, she leads them down a dark alley as she becomes confessional about her upbringing and the men in her life. We’re then transported to her as a cocky confident kid who will take a beating from her father when she refuses to carry out his orders, played by Stephen Graham, who also plays her grown up brother in an older scene. (Yes confusing and strange). It fast forwards to her as a teen or early twenties eloping with Bob, who have a whirlwind romance from a night at the disco that fast forwards them to having their own flat, then suddenly Bob flipping the coin as a charmer to a bit of a bastard that now treats Funny Cow as a piece of property. Some years later, Bob (played by Tony Pitts who also wrote Funny Cow) has become a full on violent misogynist threatening Funny Cow with a beating if she undermines him. She’s inspired by flailing circuit comedian Lenny whose material is as old as he is. Willing to listen to her and have her chaperone him, his advice is barely encouraging as he point blank believes that women just aren’t funny. When Lenny becomes too ill to perform, he encourages his manager to allow Funny Cow to have a crack. Trying to mimic his material, she’s about to share his own death, but when she turns on a heckler, she gets the audience on her side and a star is born.
There’s a commendable effort behind the making of Funny Cow. As it flicks through the decades with not much regard for linear continuity, they do well to capture each decade visually to look genuine, but that is as far as the positive criticism goes for this British comedy drama with an all star cast from t’North. From start to end, amongst the confusing plot, or real lack of, you’re left wondering what is the point or what Funny Cow is really trying to say? With the exception of how difficult it was for women to be a stand-up of that era. But the journey never feels genuine. Funny Cow goes from a nervous wreck at a low-key talent contest to overnight star at the flash of a hat in a hostile working man’s club. There’s also questionable judgement in the use of homophobia or racism in the stand-up sets, yes perhaps reflective and true to the period but if they weren’t included I don’t think anyone would be questioning the lack of racist or homophobic jokes.
There are some trinkets of humour, mainly from the extremely brief cameos of Jim Moir and John Bishop, but its barely compensated for what is a frustrating ride as we never quite know what the film’s message is, other than the one that’s too much on the nose. It also seems to be littered with every Northern cliché it could muster just to compliment the lack of original thought. It all adds up to another disappointing British film and by the look of the very revered British director I sat beside, I don’t think I am alone in my opinions of it.