Funny Cow is the stage name, and only credited name, of the film’s heroine. A dishevelled soul, battling low self worth, blatant sexism and domestic abuse by simply seeing the funny side of all the tragedy within her life.
The film opens on a stage inhabited by Maxine Peake’s character. She presents a beguiling mix of contradictions, appearing a little dishevelled and a touch glamorous. Her set is a series of clever one-liners delivered in a northern drawl. Behind her eyes is a mix of intelligence and fragility. Her jokes are dark, filled with enough personal trauma and dark revelations to have you second guess every laugh.
The troubled cow has a troubled relationship with men – both those close to her and the nameless men who inhabit her audience. She deals with horrible abuse with a sharp tongue, all trauma seemingly unable to penetrate her protective cloak of humour and deprecation.
Funny Cow’s life is a harrowed one. Rewinding from her successful set the story begins with her as a child getting verbally and physically abused by her horrible father. With her childhood story told in a few compact scenes we quickly get to a point where her father has been replaced by an equally domineering and brutish husband. One night the Funny Cow goes out to a mens club of the time and is struck by a veteran jaded comedian. Within that two minute set she decides herself that she wants to perform. Immediately she is told to forget about performing. Women aren’t funny. And perhaps if she gets some clothes off and sings then the club will let her on stage. It’s a testament to her resolve and a critique of the outdated concept of women not being funny.
The film with its non-stop dry wit does end up feeling a bit monotone. Likewise the pacing is one speed resulting in a disconnect to an otherwise interesting character. Her reaction to extreme abuse and jubilation is manufactured indifference and wry understatements. This shield inhibits the audience from really connecting and finding empathy. She is at her most engaging when she shows vulnerability and sincerity but those moments are fleeting.
Punctuating the film and her comedic sets are sharp insightful monologues shining powerful light on human dynamics, behaviour and relationships. These are powerful and a little uncomfortable and without a doubt the highlights of the film. At times it seems as though the plot is reverse engineered to frame these golden moments. The dialogue is hard hitting and makes up for a contrived plot and the two dimensional supporting characters. There is strong potential shown by writer Tony Pitts in his screenwriting feature debut.
While the film is billed as a comedy drama it’s more so a drama period piece on a comedian. Her world is dark and, despite an inclusion of plenty of her own and other comedian’s jokes, plenty of the featured material is heavily dated and drab. Documenting the casual racism and sexism that entertained audiences decades ago is necessary in a period piece like this. But nonetheless it lingers throughout the frames like a bad smell in an already bleak film. There’s plenty to like about Maxine’s performance of the Funny Cow. But not so much for the film itself.
Funny Cow is in cinemas from 26th July through Rialto Distribution.