In a rare moment of light, everyday pleasure in the otherwise perma-brooding “Funny Face,” two young Brooklyn lovers build sandwiches from international deli ingredients, accompanied by Serbian butter and sour watermelon pickle, and eat their creations with relish on a bench overlooking the shore. Whether intended or not as a reference to an almost century-old Rodgers & Hart lyric — “We’ll go to Coney/And eat baloney/On a roll” — it’s a tender evocation of a New York City that is currently passing before its inhabitants’ eyes, as diverse, independent populations and businesses are increasingly flattened in the name of hollow corporate gentrification.
That’s hardly an incidental theme of Tim Sutton’s stylish, plainly impassioned fifth feature, in which two young outsiders — a Muslim woman shaking off the oppressive minding of her elders, and an unhinged, mask-wearing victim of property redevelopment — meet, fall in love, and rage against the capitalist machine. It’s just that the aforementioned scene is a rare instance of it being expressed with subtle grace. Elsewhere, “Funny Face” goes in for blunt social metaphor, heightened Brechtian allegory and neon-lit nightmare visions: a stew of approaches that is sometimes seductive and often gratingly affected. Small-scale distribution will follow a premiere in Berlin’s inaugural Encounters section: This may not be Sutton’s breakout, but it still feels like one is coming.
This is not the first time the director has remixed a potentially straight-up portrait of American community and tragedy to adventurously stylized, likely divisive effect, though his latest feels sketchier and less polished in its poetry than 2013’s “Memphis” and 2016’s “Dark Night.” (2018’s oddball fighter drama “Donnybrook” remains something of an outlier in his distinctive filmography.) Oddly, “Funny Face” feels more like a promising but overreaching debut than any of his earlier films, particularly at the level of its slender script, heavy as it is on banal, minimalist dialogue that doesn’t fuel the flickering chemistry between leads Cosmo Jarvis (“Lady Macbeth”) and appealing newcomer Dela Meskienyar as best it could.
The film’s opening scenes are its most prosaic, establishing Saul (Jarvis) and Zama (Meskienyar) as kindred spirits in a world that doesn’t understand or (quite literally) accommodate them. Still mourning the loss of her father, Zama feels suffocated under the orthodox guardianship of her aunt and uncle, and leaves home without much of a plan for the future; at a late-night Brooklyn bodega (where else?) she runs into Saul, likewise cast adrift when his grandparents (Rhea Perlman and Dan Hedaya, in a short, salty joint cameo) are evicted from their home to make way for a parking lot — part of a slick high-rise development overseen by an unnamed, chronically sneering shark in a suit (Jonny Lee Miller).
Their attraction is instant, colored by the rosy-fiery sunset tones of Lucas Gath’s serene, deep-shadow cinematography, though they’re not immediately intent on making their troubled city an isle of joy. Saul spends much of his time wearing an ominously grinning “funny face” mask that makes your average dollar-store Joker getup look benevolent by comparison; fashioning himself as a kind of asphalt-level superhero, out for some manner of revenge on Miller’s character and his ilk, he ropes Zama into a meandering justice mission that suits her aimless purposes just fine. If the city’s going to hell, after all, you may as well find love on the way down.
Notwithstanding its obvious symbolism and single-ply characterization — Miller’s villain, a barking alpha manchild shown smothered in writhing strippers, may as well have a dollar sign tattooed on his face — this is a promising enough setup. But it never becomes much more than that. The central couple’s swift bond and languidly angry quest stall midway through, serving principally as an impetus for Sutton’s dreamy images of romanticized urban rot, which don’t even trust viewers to gauge their most essential layers of meaning. An abandoned, repossessed house in the neglected city margins is helpfully punctuated with a road sign proclaiming “Dead End”; from a shot of Saul and Zama shutting out the outside world to make out in his car, we pan up to a smoke-shrouded fluorescent letters spelling “Nirvana.”
This kind of naive surrealism is an acquired taste, admittedly, and “Funny Face” offers several striking points of interest even to those who struggle with it: a brittle, bleeping electronic score by Phil Mossman that casts a genuinely otherworldly chill over proceedings, and the ever-compelling thespian stylings of Jarvis, whose balance of pose-y swagger and seething, involuntary emotional excess would be clear enough in its inspirations even if the film didn’t plaster him in literal reflections of James Dean. It’s a performance fascinating and eccentric enough to make one wish the rest of the filmmaking would dial it down a notch — to let us feel its fury instead of chicly signposting it at every turn.