Funny Games

Euro helmer Michael Haneke’s almost shot-by-shot remake of his 1997 chiller “Funny Games U.S.” is as shocking and deliberately manipulative as the original movie.

Steve Oedekerk

Euro helmer Michael Haneke’s almost shot-by-shot remake of his 1997 chiller “Funny Games” is as shocking and deliberately manipulative as the original movie and — some may reckon — even more pointless. Transposed from Europe to Long Island, with English rather than German dialogue, the pic is robbed of some of its arthouse distance — especially for Anglophone auds — and inevitably stands comparison with other, much more commercial family-in-peril movies. Even with the excellent Naomi Watts to hook more viewers than ever saw Haneke’s first pass, this is still specialty, upscale fare. Warner Independent plans a limited Stateside release Feb. 15.

Unspooled in Cannes’ 1997 competition, with almost no advance info but considerable buzz about its violent content, the original pic followed two other arty examinations by Haneke of the relationship between violence and the media (“Benny’s Video,” “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance”). Film went unprized but immediately launched the German-born, Austrian-raised writer-director into the big league of Euro auteurs.

Despite that, Haneke’s original film remains largely unknown — especially Stateside — beyond hardcore art-movie buffs, far less so than subsequent movies like “Cache” or even “The Piano Teacher.”

Haneke is on record as always having considered the story more an American one than a Euro one culturally. But the original’s quizzical, very European view on screen violence — and its almost complete lack of U.S.-style redemption or catharsis — remains unchanged, making the movie a curious experience in its new setting.

Like many pics that purport to take a critical look at violence in the mass media, there’s also the same nagging doubt (as with the original) that the movie also trades on the exploitation it purports to examine. Strip away its high-minded artiness and the remade “Funny Games” manipulates the viewer as much as any more explicit shockfest — and without delivering any clear point to justify its accumulative distastefulness.

First seen driving to their comfy summer retreat with a yacht in tow, the Farber family is composed of dad George (Tim Roth), mom Anna (Watts) and son Georgie (Devon Gearhart). Stopping by their nearest neighbors, Fred and Betsy Thompson (Boyd Gaines, Siobhan Fallon), in the rich, gated community, they notice the couple has two young male guests and seem curiously distant.

Fred comes around with one of his guests, Paul (Michael Pitt) — whom he describes as the son of a business associate — to help George launch his refitted boat. Meanwhile, the other guest, Peter (Brady Corbet), comes to the house to ask Anna if he can borrow some eggs.

First half-hour very effectively trades on the expectation of violence to come, from incongruous details like Paul and Peter both wearing white gloves to the extreme politesse adopted by all the characters, even as the two youths progressively stretch the unwritten rules of social behavior. When George finally cracks and slaps one of them in the face, the “games” begin in earnest.

For many viewers, the story will be completely new (unlike, say, Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho”), and the twists and turns and shockingly offhand moments of violence (largely offscreen) will carry an initial charge. Problem is, as the film progresses, it becomes painfully clear there’s no real point to the story; what we’re witnessing is a cool, intellectual exercise, as devoid of character and motivation as the two psychos themselves.

Some powerful movies have been made from senseless slaughter (“In Cold Blood”), but Haneke’s script gives the viewer no way into the characters. Pic also tries to have it both ways, supplying the viewer with one brief moment of emotional satisfaction, but then turning that satisfaction against the viewer.

Where the dramatic focus in the earlier version was evenly balanced between husband and wife, here Watts’ Anna is unquestionably the main protag. Thesp, who co-exec produced, rises to the occasion with a beautifully judged perf of bourgeois grit that pushes the character as far as the script allows. In Roth’s perf, George comes across as a much weaker figure than in the original.

In the Paul-and-Peter double act, acting kudos are also reversed. Pitt is unctuously evil as Ivy League psycho Paul (far more threatening than in the original), while Corbet is largely his sidekick dunce.

In a curious artistic choice, Darius Khondji’s lensing is drained of any warmth, with cold whites and distilled colors that underline the obvious. Juergen Juerges’ lensing of the ‘97 version made more of the contrast between bright, summery colors and the sense of threat beneath them.

Dialogue is precisely translated from the 1997 film, with the couple’s house an exact replica of the original; running time is a mere four minutes longer. Most notable other change, which introduces a visual distraction not in the original, is to have Watts in her underwear (rather than fully clothed) during the central sequence.

On print screened at London fest, title was presented as “Funny Games U.S.”

Funny Games

U.S. - U.K. - France - Germany - Italy

  • Production: A Tartan (in U.K.)/Warner Independent Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Celluloid Dreams (France)/Warner Independent Pictures (U.S.) presentation of a Halcyon Pictures, Tartan Films (U.K.)/Celluloid Dreams (France)/X Filme Intl. (Germany)/Lucky Red (Italy) production. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Chris Coen, Hamish McAlpine. Executive producers, Hengameh Panahi, Douglas Steiner, Carol Siller, Naomi Watts. Co-producers, Jonathan Schwartz, Rene Bastian, Linda Moran, Andro Steinborn, Christian Baute, Adam Brightman. Directed, written by Michael Haneke, based on his 1997 film “Funny Games.”
  • Crew: Camera (color), Darius Khondji; editor, Monika Willi; music, excerpts from works by Handel, Mascagni, Mozart and others; production designer, Kevin Thompson; art director, Hinju Kim; costume designer, David C. Robinson; sound (Dolby Digital), Tom Varga; assistant director, Urs Hirschbiegel; casting, Johanna Ray. Reviewed at National Film Theater 3, London, Oct. 15, 2007. (In London Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.
  • With: Anna Farber - Naomi Watts George Farber - Tim Roth Paul - Michael Pitt Peter- Brady Corbet Georgie Farber - Devon Gearhart Fred Thompson Boyd Gaines Betsy Thompson - Siobhan Fallon Robert - Robert LuPone Eva - Linda Moran (English dialogue)