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Funny Games (May 12/02)

Like If I Die Before I Wake, Funny Games is an uncompromising and harsh look at a home invasion - except in this case, it's not nearly as effective.

As the film opens, a German family of three are heading to their summer home. Once they arrive and have settled in, two sociopaths move in for the kill. What initially seems like a squabble over manners - one of the evildoers keeps breaking eggs that he's supposedly borrowing - quickly escalates into a full-blown hostage situation. As you might expect from a couple of sociopaths and with a title like Funny Games, the two treat the whole experience as one long game - even going so far as to bet the family whether or not they'll still be alive in the morning.

Funny Games' first half hour is incredibly effective, with a very suspenseful setup of the whole situation. But after that, it becomes increasingly frustrating - beginning with the family's reaction to being held hostage. The father initially tries to be polite, when he should be fighting back - and by the time he does decide to try something, he gives one of the assailants a girlish slap (which results in one of his legs being broken). Finally, it seems as though the thugs have left, and we're treated to an interminable shot of the surviving family members just sitting there, stunned. You think I'm exaggerating, but I'm really not; the director employs a static shot that lasts around ten minutes and for most of those excruiciating ten minutes, the survivors don't even move. Perhaps that shot exists for realism, but in a movie where one of the characters is constantly talking directly to the camera, realism pretty much takes an early exit.

Which brings me to my biggest complaint with Funny Games: The bizarre self-referential style employed by the director (who also wrote the film). The lead instigator often turns to the camera and talks to the audience, mostly to assure us that he knows we're not on his side. It's a stupid trick, and seriously undermines the severity of the situation. But that's nothing compared to what happens towards the end of the film. One of the surviving family members has finally managed to turn the tables on the lesser of the two intruders, and shoots him. The head criminal frantically searches for the television remote and - I kid you not - rewinds the scene and changes the outcome. If there was ever a more ridiculous, pretentious (not to mention stupid) innovation employed by a director, I've not seen it. I can accept a character breaking the fourth wall, but something like that just infuriates me.

Funny Games alternates between being harrowing and obnoxious. But it does stay true to its brutal premise right up to the conclusion (the movie features a great twist ending), and is effective on that level. But that one sequence featuring the manipulation of time by a character undermines everything that came before it (and especially everything that comes after).

*1/2 out of ****

David Nusair 2002