March 20, 2008

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Funny Games (R)
A yuppie family is tormented by two preppie hooligans in Funny Games, a horror movie that replaces gore with tension that only sometimes becomes tedium.

Ann (Naomi Watts), her husband George (Tim Roth) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) have just arrived at their lavish country home for a vacation of sailing, golf and just generally soaking up the joys of living in the top 1 percent. But as they drive into their rich-neighborhood-away-from-rich-neighborhood, they see two young men dressed in golf whites (or maybe tennis whites ó I donít know my person-of-leisure sports attire), Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), standing with their friends. The friends are acting a bit odd, but Ann and George donít really think anything of it. Nor do they really think anything of it when one of the boys, Paul, comes over with the neighbor to help George launch the boat.

But as the Georges get the boat ready for sailing, Peter appears at Annís back door, asking to borrow four eggs for the neighbor. Heís creepy and sheís a bit halting in inviting him in but she does and she hands him some eggs and sends him on his way. Of course, he doesnít go. He ďaccidentallyĒ drops the first eggs she gives him, requiring a politely aggravated Ann to give him some more. He leaves with those, but then Paul appears to tell Ann that Peter dropped those when he was startled by her dog. In nearly the same breath, he also asks to try out a particularly nice golf club of Georgeís and, well, even before the dog stops barking you know whatís about to happen.

Paul and Peter reappear, still aggravatingly polite, but also creepily insistent that they get the remaining four eggs. Ann tries to get them to leave but then George appears and tries to ďmediate,Ē which he doesnít realize the fruitlessness of until Paul swings the golf club into his knee.

This violence is the first certain sign to George, Ann and Georgie that these arenít just two friends of the neighboring family and that a frosty ďgood dayĒ isnít going to get rid of them. The first sign to George and Ann but not nearly the first sign to us ó two clearly evil-looking guys wearing white gloves and looking around way too intently seemed to be flashing neon danger signs. Itís a darkly humorous and frustrating part of the story that George and Ann are never on their guard fast enough and respond to threats with the weakest kind of defense. George doesnít seem to know how to throw a punch or match (must less beat) an opponent in a physical struggle. Annís response is sharper but, a mere slip of a woman, she isnít even as good as her son is at slipping the boysí hold.

Paul and Peter donít inflict Saw-like tortures on the family but they are just violent enough and cruelly menacing, all but promising the family theyíre going to die within hours and humiliating Ann in front of Georgie. Watching this kind of thing can be frightening at times but it can also be wearing in the same way that the stage blood and head-lobbings of standard slasher movies are. (Though I will say that the fact that most of the worse violence happens off screen does indeed make it more chilling somehow.) The sadistic preppy boys drag their taunting of the family on and on and it often feels like our torture is dragging on too. And, since they canít sock us in the jaw, the movie occasionally makes us groan with a little talking at the camera ó a needless and rather pretentious gimmick in this case.

I donít mind feeling scared and angry at a horror movie (well, donít mind feeling angry at the villains as opposed to angry at the movie, which never bodes well) and I liked how Funny Games played around a bit with our emotions, with how we want and expect (thanks to years of horror films) the movie to turn out. But that self-consciousness quickly surpassed clever and sailed right into smug and, while I understand the tension that tedium can create, the threat of being bored to death just isnít that scary. C

Rated R for terror, violence and some language. Written and directed by Michael Haneke, Funny Games is an hour and 52 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Warner Independent Pictures.