Funny Games

03/12/2008 12:00 AM |

I admire the films, especially the recent work, of Austrian director Michael Haneke. Quite a bit. He’s developed substantially from the clinical provocateur he played in the late 80s to late 90s, and starting with 2000’s Code Unknown has increasingly given dimension to his characters, his social and political scenarios, and, most importantly, his ideas about media and violence. In other words, he’s done what interesting filmmakers do over time — grown. Which is why a remake of his own infamous 1997 home invasion inversion Funny Games is such a slap in the face to those who’ve been defending him against the not invalid criticism his often academic genre challenges bring on. It signals no less than a lazy and cynical career regression.

Problem one: there’s nothing new of note in this version of Funny Games (or, as it’s also being called, Funny Games U.S.). It’s set among WASPy American bourgeoisie instead of their Austrian counterparts from the original and now features known acting commodities (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the victimized couple; Michael Pitt as the alpha of a couple of Clockwork Orange-inspired killers), but that’s about it. Otherwise the compositions are identical, the settings well approximated, the dialogue barely tweaked (even archaic Beavis and Butt-head references are left intact). It’s a virtual photocopy, down to the juvenile soundtrack choices (Mozart contrasted with beserkoid thrash metal — ooooohhh), of the film that 11 years ago gained notoriety with a seemingly conventional nightmarish torture thriller set-up unraveled by hope-crushing, nihilistic brutality and several meta-movie wink-nudges to confront the audience in its complicity. And when I say wink-nudge, I mean literally wink-nudge: the first instance comes when Paul (Pitt) turns to the camera and smirks at the audience as he leads Ann (Watts) in a twisted game, one of many to come, of find-the-dead-dog. At certain moments we’re asked who we’re “betting” on: charming Paul and dull-witted Peter, both equally vicious under a thin layer of civility, or vacationing family Ann, George (Roth) and young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart). At others we’re told the film, and thus the violence, can’t end because of “plausible plot development” and “the importance of entertainment.”

Perhaps these anti-illusion, expectation-defying devices were once genuinely subversive “commentaries” on the vicarious kick of movie mayhem. I doubt it, though, and if Funny Games 2.0 demonstrates anything, it’s that riding on the coattails of all those Saws and Hostels, these devices are merely more opportunistic. By tapping Funny Games for the market for which it was always meant, Haneke might be undermining the inherent perversity of such films at their American commercial source, but he’s still combating complex viewer attitudes with dry schematics handmade for film studies scholars and nobody else. Funny Games asks why we’re watching, but it conveniently never asks who’s watching — because the only people who are are those who want their sadism served with conscientious deprecation. After all, there aren’t any characters here (Pitt’s downgrade is the one significant change, not coming close to matching Arno Frisch’s original unctuous evil) to make anyone without a need for moralistic genre instruction care, while those who do probably aren’t learning anything new anyway. Funny how the film ends with a dialogue about black holes “where nothing can escape.” After being trapped in its tautological vacuum, that’s just what Funny Games feels like.

Opens March 14