Maxine Peake’s good work as an aspiring stand-up comedian in Funny Cow is let down by the incoherent mess of a film around her, while Juliette Binoche lights up the French romantic comedy Let the Sunshine In
Funny Cow (15) 2stars
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (12A) 2stars
The Leisure Seeker (15) 2stars
Let the Sunshine In (15) 4stars
Rampage (12A) 2stars
Movies about comedy are rarely funny but Funny Cow takes the sad clown cliché to such a grim extreme it becomes almost laughable. Starring the excellent Maxine Peake as an aspiring British stand-up in the sexist, racist, homophobic environs of the Northern working men’s clubs of the 1970s and early 1980s, the film around her is such a wilfully incoherent mess it renders her performance all but dead on arrival.
She plays the eponymous Funny Cow (no other character name is given), a battered wife who has apparently found success by transforming the trauma of her life into a stage act that mixes the sort of politically incorrect gags of the era with uncomfortable confessionals about her childhood, her marriage and her surroundings. Using what seems like a television special or a monologue-based theatre show as a framing device, the film deploys random flashbacks (with occasional magical realist flourishes) to various incidents in her life in order to track her evolution from defiant child who stood up to her violent father (Stephen Graham) to self-determining woman able to conquer the male-dominated club circuit with racist and fat-shaming jokes of her own.
Along the way she’s mentored by a terminally depressed veteran comic (Alun Armstrong) and meets a cartoonishly conceived bookseller (a woefully miscast Paddy Considine), whose Pygmalion fantasies she’s more than happy to exploit as she escapes her brutal marriage to the knuckle-dragging Bob (played by the film’s writer Tony Pitts). Blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from the likes of Vic Reeves and John Bishop capture some of the sad, broken spirit of the variety circuit, but the film’s determination to avoid the rise-fall-redemption character arc of the biopic (even a fictional biopic) backfires. By plotting a more elliptical and impressionistic course – one perhaps inspired by Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson or the Andy Serkis-starring Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Funny Cow might give some sense of the chaos of its protagonist’s life, but that’s not the same thing as making it compelling on screen. In the end it feels like a hollow and rather pointless exercise.
British cinematic clichés of a different sort are rife in the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, yet another nostalgic trip to the good old days of post-Blitz Blighty. Like Their Finest, it’s terribly twee and revolves around a plucky London-based writer in an unsatisfying relationship who finds her true calling by putting her skills to use helping others. This is Juliet, played by Lily James, a novelist and essayist who travels to Guernsey to write about the experiences of the islanders who lived under Nazi occupation after a member of the eponymous book group reaches out to her. Upon arrival, she discovers a tragic tale of thwarted love and betrayal that’s had a profound effect on each of the group’s members, not least the soulful and handsome pig farmer (Michiel Huisman) who first wrote to her. British acting mainstays Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton add some grace notes here and there, but this is mostly Sunday evening TV fodder, competently enough directed by Four Weddings and a Funeral’s Mike Newell, but also aggressively pleasant in a way that doesn’t so much pass the time as remind you that time is passing.
The same might be said for The Leisure Seeker, which continues a trend of serving up dumbed-down movies for seniors, as if IQ points suddenly drop post-retirement. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland star as Ella and John Spencer, a married American couple who decide to take a final road trip in their titular camper van before Ella’s declining health and John’s dementia confine them to a nursing home. Set against the backdrop of Trump’s election campaign, the film flirts with saying something interesting about the cultural amnesia that allows such things to happen, but mostly it’s just wants to be a quirky road trip movie, one that has Sutherland’s ageing academic quote Hemingway at length to give the film a veneer of intelligence while at the same time revelling in the no-nonsense charm of Mirren’s caricatured southerner. Its treatment of dementia as a convenient plot device for revealing family secrets is pretty shameless too.
French auteur Claire Denis returns with Let the Sunshine In, an intriguingly inscrutable, bone-dry romantic comedy, loosely inspired by literary theorist Roland Barthe’s A Lovers Discourse: Fragments and starring the ever-brilliant Juliette Binoche as a newly divorced Parisian artist questioning the importance of romance at this stage in her life. As comically French as that sounds, Denis’s commitment to exploring her protagonist’s dilemma honestly and intelligently makes this a rare example of a filmmaker genuinely wanting to do something a little different in terms of narrative storytelling and actually knowing how to do it.
One might think it would be hard to go wrong with a movie featuring man-mountain Dwayne Johnson and a giant albino gorilla. Vintage video game adaptation Rampage, however, ruins the potential B-movie fun by expecting us to take seriously the genetic-experimentation plot that turns Johnson’s simian pal George (Johnson plays a primatologist in the movie) into a real life version of Donkey Kong. Add to this the sub-standard effects work and San Andreas director Brad Peyton’s ongoing failure to convey any sense of scale and it’s hard to be as awestruck by the visuals as the characters’ facial expressions suggest we should be. ■