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 FUNNY GAMES

An American remake of the 1997 Austrian film of the same name, FUNNY GAMES is harsh, disquieting, gripping, self-indulgent and ultimately pointless.

The Package
     This 2007 production marked the premiere English language film by the acclaimed Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (of THE PIANO TEACHER, TIME OF THE WOLF, CACHE and many others). Haneke wrote and directed the 1997 FUNNY GAMES, and has always claimed he had the American market in mind with that film, as we’re apparently the foremost purveyors of violent cinema (I guess there are no violent European or Asian films…?). The English-language title testifies to that fact, as does the rural waterfront location--according to Haneke no such place exists in Austria. It seems apropos that Haneke remade the film in America, with an upstate New York setting and a cast that includes Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Naomi Watts (Haneke reportedly refused to do the film without her, and Watts got an executive producer credit in the bargain).
     Of course what got lost is the question of whether FUNNY GAMES was even worth remaking. I say no, although in all fairness this new version is superior to the old one in most respects. 

The Story
     The thirtyish Ann, her husband George and their young son are vacationing at their lakeside home. Upon arriving they spot two tennis outfit wearing young men cavorting with the neighbors. They think nothing of this until one of the strangers approaches Ann in her kitchen and asks for some eggs. She grants his request, only to have him drop the eggs on the floor and knock her cell phone into the kitchen sink.
     From there things grow increasingly ugly as the other stranger turns up to “try out” one of George’s expensive golf clubs--on the family dog! Further violence is visited upon George himself, who gets his kneecap broken by the very golf club that killed his dog, rendering him impotent for the remainder of the film.
     The two young men, who identify themselves as Beavis and Butthead, decide to play a game with Ann, George and their son: see if they can all stay alive until 9:00 the following morning. The kid manages to escape to the house next door, only to find its occupants have been murdered by B&B. The kid doesn’t have long to ponder this, as he’s recaptured and dragged back to the house--where he’s promptly shot!
     B&B, you see, have an impossible advantage over the family: they know they’re in a movie, which they demonstrate by directly addressing the audience on several occasions. Thus they toy mercilessly with Ann and George.
     Ann escapes but, like her son before her, is recaptured and hauled back to the house. She shoots one of her captors, but they undo this by literally rewinding the action, achievable by pressing the rewind button on the DVD remote (an idea that plays every bit as ridiculous as it sounds!). It seems there’s no hope for Ann and George, and indeed there isn’t!

The Direction
     This is a beautifully made film for the most part. Michael Haneke’s spare and rigorous mise-en-scene is mesmerizing, generating Hitchcock-worthy suspense. Intriguingly, most of the violence occurs offscreen, yet still makes a lasting impression (every time we follow a character out of a room it’s almost a certainty that some unseen atrocity is going to occur). Haneke also knows how to bring out the best in his actors: Naomi Watts and Tim Roth have never been better, while Michael Pitt delivers a star-making performance as the dangerously sociopathic yet suave and charismatic ringleader of the mayhem (far outdoing the actor who played the role in the 1997 FUNNY GAMES, as Haneke himself has acknowledged).
     But the film just doesn’t have much to say. The only justification for all the mayhem is the tired it’s-the-audience-who’s-guilty conceit, of which this wildly pretentious film offers very likely the ultimate example. We’re supposed to be shocked by the realization that Pitt’s conspiratorial asides to us show that we’re more interested in the killers than the victims, but that point was already made in films ranging from PSYCHO to MAN BITES DOG and most of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET flicks. And don’t even get me started on the ludicrous be-kind-rewind twist, which completely wrecks Haneke’s painstakingly wrought atmosphere of coiled tension--the scene played like a bad joke in the 1997 version and continues in that vein here.
 

Vital Statistics

FUNNY GAMES
Celluloid Dreams/Warner Independent Pictures

Director: Michael Haneke
Producers: Chris Coen, Hamish McAlpine, Heingameh Paniahi, Christian
Baute, Andro Steinborn
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Editing: Monika Willi
Cast: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart

     

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