"Funny Games," condescends to its audience like a pretentious, preachifying graduate student in post-modernism. It would help us out of the cultural quagmire we're drowning in, if only we could understand its highly convoluted and exclusive language.
Unfortunately, what Austrian director Michael Haneke is saying is all too clear: popular culture, especially American cartoons like Tom and Jerry and Beavis and Butt-head, has rendered its consumers inured to violence and its very real consequences.
Not a terribly original point, but, by God, Haneke will drive it home if he has to bore us to death to do it. Take a line, any line, from the director's statement in the production notes for "Funny Games," and you'll understand the filmmaker's penchant for turgidity: "The compulsion always to go one better led to the permanent paroxysm of the striving for intensity and thus indirectly also to a further blurring of the boundaries between reality and representation."
Enough, Mr. Haneke: Hie thee to a verb-monger, and quickly. Just please stay away from anything resembling a movie camera.
"Funny Games" starts with promise. An affluent Austrian family motors its way to a posh lakeside country house, playing name-that-aria and discussing tomorrow's golf game with the neighbors. Once arrived, mom (Susanne Lothar) commences to prepare dinner while dad (Ulrich Muhe) and son (Stefan Clapczynski) put the sailboat in the water.
Just another stinking day in paradise until the happy family is visited by two mysterious houseguests from next door. Played by Frank Giering, bearing an unsettling resemblance to Beau Bridges, and Arno Frisch, bearing an unsettling resemblance to Pete Sampras, the two psychopaths proceed to take the household hostage for the next 12 hours, submitting their captives to all manner of torture, sadism and murder.
But it all pales next to the predations visited upon the audience by Haneke himself. "Funny Games" is a terrible movie, not because it makes violence too real for desensitized filmgoers, as Haneke intended, but because it's thick-headed and obvious and insultingly smug.
If "Funny Games" has any moral to offer, it's that husbands should never second-guess their wives, frustrated academics should never make movies and -- compared to their preening and posing detractors -- Tom, Jerry, Beavis and dear old Butt-head aren't half bad.
Starring Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe, Frank Giering, Arno Frisch, Stefan Clapczynski
Directed by Michael Haneke
Released by Attitude Films
Sun score *
Pub Date: 5/29/98