Here's what's funny about writer-director Michael Haneke's "Funny Games," a nearly identical English-language remake of his own 1997 thriller set in Austria:
Haneke wants to condemn Hollywood pop culture for reveling in gratuitous, graphic violence, and he intentionally places the most brutal acts of his sadistic hostage drama just outside the frame. Yet the violence is still there " it's completely germane to the story " and even though you can't see it, it still achieves the same sort of unsettling effect.
You're still hearing one character suffer a broken leg from a swift whack with a golf club; and that blood dripping down the television set comes from another character, who had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a shotgun blast. (We won't even begin to describe the fate that befalls the family dog.)
This is what we would refer to as "having it both ways," in any language.
This time, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth star as wealthy married couple Ann and George, who are on their way with their young son (Devon Gearhart) to their tasteful vacation home in an upscale waterfront community. (Watts is also an executive producer; why such a talented and versatile actress would be drawn to such deplorable material is baffling.)
Soon after they arrive, the exceedingly polite Peter (Brady Corbet) shows up at the door in preppy all-white (with conspicuous white gloves) and asks to borrow some eggs for a neighbor. Then his partner Paul (Michael Pitt) arrives, who is similarly dressed and just as creepily ingratiating.
Clearly, they're not there for the eggs.
What follows plays like "The Great Gatsby" on acid " it's torture porn for the art-house crowd.
Haneke does put a feeling of unease in the pit of your stomach from the beginning, though, and through intimate staging and long takes, creates a steadily building tension. (This is a man who is not afraid to hold a shot; the silence that often accompanies the awkward exchanges between the family and their captors adds to the feeling of claustrophobia.)
The fact that we don't know exactly who these guys are or what they're after can be riveting " at least initially. Are they brothers? They keep referring to each other by various names, teasing each other about things that happened while growing up. And what's with the gloves?
We know their intentions are nefarious by their demeanor and the fact that they just won't leave, despite Anna and George's initially civilized, then increasingly insistent, suggestions. Yet with their blond hair, blue eyes and soft, pouty lips, they appear childlike, almost angelic. And the fact they force Anna, George and little Georgie to play along with their contrived riddles and games indicates they're not just there to rob the place. Something much more twisted is going on, which amps up the intrigue.
Then Haneke ruins the effect about an hour in by having Pitt turn to the camera, break the fourth wall and cheekily address the audience. Whatever sensation we'd been experiencing that we were privy to watching something weird and unexpected has just been shattered.
He knows this is just a movie, even discusses the importance of character and plot development. But by reminding us that it's just a movie, not only has he inappropriately yanked us back to reality, he's made the film's shortcomings that much more obvious.
Peter and Paul " or Tom and Jerry or Beavis and Butt-head, whatever they call each other " are ciphers, impossible to care about because, ultimately, their motivation is so poorly defined. Apparently they're out to destroy wealthy vacationers for no apparent reason. This particular family did nothing wrong, except make enough money to afford a nice house on the lake.
So "Funny Games" is just a self-important take on the Robin Hood legend? Really? Ha-ha.
"Funny Games," a Warner Independent release, is rated R for terror, violence and some language. 112 min. Two stars out of four.