First things first: “Funny Games” is a remake. This seems like the obligatory place to start this review, as it’s impossible to take two films directed by the same man, featuring virtually identical scripts, and judge them on their own merits when the only things distinguishing them from one another are the spoken language and the actors.
Much like its 1997 German-language counterpart, “Funny Games” tells the story of an upper-middle-class couple and their weekend of terror at a secluded bayside summerhouse. Ann (Naomi Watts, “King Kong”) and George (Tim Roth, “Reservoir Dogs”) are insipidly perfect: they own a sailboat, have a cute blonde moppet of a son and cheerfully fight over their CD collection of classical composers. Arriving at the aforementioned house, they are set upon by a pair of equally clean-cut but far more colorful psychos, played by Michael Pitt (“The Dreamers”) and Brady Corbet (“Thirteen”). The two proceed to subject the family to a series of “funny” games, which, as you can probably guess, aren’t so funny – at least not to the family.
If you’ve seen the original “Funny Games,” there won’t be many surprises in store for you here. But Michael Haneke, who helmed both the original and the American remake, assumes – probably correctly – that most Americans haven’t, and he’s quick to turn his wolf-like gaze onto a fresh, wet-behind-the-ears audience of Hollywood-weaned sheep.
Simply put, “Funny Games” is a film out to get you. It’s meant to shock you, alienate you and leave you pissed off. It accomplishes all this – but not for the right reasons.
The problem lies with Haneke. A talented and controversial director, he’s also, at times, eye-rollingly pretentious, and that’s evident in this film. While technically brilliant and very well acted, it can’t seem to decide where its intentions lie. Starting out like a straight-ahead thriller, the film quickly verges into Godardian postmodernism, with Pitt casting knowing glances at the audience – almost Ferris Bueller style – in an effort to shatter the fourth wall and point out their inherent voyeuristic tendencies.
The problem is that by doing this, he’s sapping the movie of all real human emotion. The film becomes what each of its maniacs is: a coldly calculated, grossly cynical machine. While Godard’s motivation was never in question (he wanted you to know you were watching an intricately engineered piece of art), Haneke still wants you to become emotionally invested. But it’s impossible when you know from the start the filmmaker isn’t playing by the rules. Credulity is thrown out the window, such as in a scene where one of the psychos takes control of the action with a remote control. Everything eventually becomes predictable. And, finally, things segue into gratingly dull hysterics. It gets to a point where you simply want the killers to finish off the family so you can go home. And that’s the biggest sin a film like this can make.
Still, “Funny Games” is moderately effective. It’s one of those thrillers in which the build-up is far more excruciating than the actual confrontation; the initial scene in which both psychos make their way into the house through the simple act of asking for eggs is teeth-clenchingly uncomfortable. And it caps off with an effective circular ending that forces the viewer to reconsider the opening scenes of the film.
But, ultimately, it’s just not that memorable. Haneke has made better, and other horror films have toyed with the conventions of the genre much more effectively, such as the excellent “Wolf Creek” (2005).
If you’re still interested, it’s up to you to decide which version to see first; everything said here also goes for the original. What it comes down to, essentially, is whether you want to read subtitles or not. Speak German? Hmm. Well, then . how do you feel about Naomi Watts?
At the State Theatre