‘Funny Games’

Funny, as in ha ha? Hardly.

"Funny Games" is the kind of sly freak show no one could possibly describe as a comedy.

Except, perhaps, Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke ("Caché," "The Piano Teacher"), who’s remade his 1997 original for the English-speaking market.

Not having seen the German-language version (which put Haneke on the filmmaking map after a showcase at the Cannes film festival), I can’t directly compare the two versions of the same depraved tale. But I can’t imagine much has changed.

Not when Haneke has so much fun playing games with his audience.

Just as "Funny Games’ " oh-so-polite psychos delight in terrorizing a vacationing family, Haneke delights in manipulating those watching from the safety of their cushy theater seats.

Time and again, one of his mannerly agents of mayhem all but winks as he glances toward the audience, tossing off a witty aside reminding us of our complicity in what’s happening onscreen.

"Funny Games" opens with the Farber family en route to their lakeside summer retreat.

George (Tim Roth) and Anna (Naomi Watts) are engaged in a spirited game of name-that-aria as they play opera CDs. (Somehow, I suspect this detail might have seemed more realistic in the European version.) Meanwhile, son Georgie (wide-eyed Devon Gearhart) and dog Lucky enjoy the ride.

Along the way, the Farbers drive by their neighbors’ place and honk hello. They wonder at the cool reception they receive from Fred (Boyd Gaines). And they wonder who those two young men, dressed in crisp white and hanging out at Fred’s house, could possibly be.

The Farbers find out soon enough, as one of the young guests, Paul (Michael Pitt), joins Fred in helping George launch his sailboat on the lake. The other guest, Peter (Brady Corbet), reports to the kitchen and asks to borrow some eggs from Anna.

What the white-clad, white-gloved Peter and Paul really want, of course, is something else entirely — as Anna, George and Georgie discover all too soon, and far too late, when they realize what sort of games Peter and Paul like.

While setting up its potentially deadly playing field, "Funny Games" proves genuinely unsettling, with Haneke adding ominous shadows to the movie’s bucolic summer setting and yupscale surroundings.

He also casts a sneaky satirical eye on his complacent central characters, so secure in their orderly lives and gated lakeside homes. They have nothing to fear — especially from each other. After all, anyone who’s a friend of Frank’s must be a friend of theirs.

Guess again. Because, as Peter and Paul take great pains to explain, they love playing games. Especially when they win. And they always win. But that doesn’t mean George and Anna can’t make it interesting.

For Peter and Paul, maybe. But not always so interesting for those of us in the audience, because Haneke just can’t stop playing games with us.

Some directors (Alfred Hitchcock being the supreme master) love toying with audiences, making us squeal with shivery delight as they turn the tables. With our full and utterly willing collaboration, that is.

For those sorts of cinematic schemes to succeed, however, those of us in the audience need to make an emotional investment in the characters, not only in their peril. And that’s an investment "Funny Games" can’t quite support.

Haneke’s rigorously intellectual, curiously controlled approach all but guarantees that we observe these "Funny Games" from a distance, with a sense of detachment, rather than sharing the victims’ wrenching anguish.

Perhaps that’s the point.

But there’s a point — more than one — when we ponder Peter and Paul’s horrific doings and wonder whether this movie isn’t just another, albeit artier example of "torture porn," a bit too enamored of the exploitationlike action it claims to explore.

As in that magic moment when Anna asks Peter, midtorment, "Why don’t you just kill us?"

His coldly smiling reply: "You shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment." That’s entertainment? If you insist.

Granted, it’s entertaining — in a perverse sort of way — to watch actors the caliber of Watts and Roth submit themselves to this material and, somehow, find the humanity within their sketchy characters.

Watts (who’s a co-executive producer) brings a tenacious intensity to her role, especially in agonizingly extended scenes when she’s bound, gagged and fighting for her loved ones even more desperately than for her own life.

Roth, meanwhile, struggles to find enough inner strength to overcome the grim reality that he’s an utter failure when it comes to the traditional husband-and-father job of family protector.

As the movie’s self-amused game leader, Pitt ("Last Days," "The Village") uses his prep-school prettiness and flat affect to cheerfully sadistic effect. And Corbet ("thirteen"), as his less assured partner, adds a naive, tentative touch, almost as if he’s not sure what he’s doing is that much fun after all.

He’s not the only one.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0272.

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