- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

“Funny Games” is a thriller without bloodshed, a monster movie featuring creatures that look as if they’re on their way to a polo match.

It’s also an indictment of movie violence — but traffics in some of the gratuitous fare it’s condemning.

Naomi Watts and Tim Roth star as Ann and George Farber, a well-heeled couple enjoying some quality time at their Long Island summer home with their son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart). Life, for the moment, appears ideal. It’s hard not to wish you were there to feel the salty breeze along with them.

A towheaded neighbor named Peter (Brady Corbet) pays Ann a visit one morning on a quest for some spare eggs. She’s happy to oblige, and why not? The young man’s manners are as impeccable as his jaunty summer wear.

Yet something in the exchange sets Ann on edge. When the man drops the eggs in the foyer and asks for more, his tone turns from cordial to insistent.

The eggs are but a subterfuge for the man and his equally preppy colleague, Paul (Michael Pitt), to enter the house. They quickly subdue George and trap the Farbers in their own living room.

However, the two are oh so polite at every step, gently asking the Farbers to play a series of seriously demented games for their own amusement.

Who are these young men? What do they want? What’s the purpose?

Ann and George aren’t the only ones asking these questions. The audience will want some answers, too, but writer-director Michael Haneke has little interest in anything as trite as resolution or character development.

He’s more intrigued by the breakdown of societal norms and what they say about us as a culture.

“Funny Games” is a near shot-for-shot remake of Mr. Haneke’s 1997 German-language feature of the same name, although this year’s model is meant for American eyes.

Mainstream crowds won’t line up to see it, and even indie lovers will be hard-pressed to come away with any sense of satisfaction.

If art is meant to provoke, “Funny Games” is Oscar-worthy. However, film should do much more than poke our emotions with a jagged stick. Even the lamest slasher films do that.

It’s here where “Funny Games” fails. The movie eventually lets us see the mechanisms behind the narrative, like Dorothy pulling back the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz.” To say there’s nothing there is an understatement. You can feel Mr. Haneke’s disdain for modern movie conventions in the final reel.

Miss Watts continues to choose edgy roles, spurning the easy path to box-office stardom chosen by Reese Witherspoon and other starlets. Her Ann is both wounded and feisty enough to be believable. Mr. Pitt’s tightly coiled performance is a stunner, a primer in capturing evil without resorting to any of the cliches associated with psychopaths.

Ultimately, “Funny Games” is more an intellectual thesis than a film in any traditional sense. That doesn’t mean it won’t leave a nasty mark.

**1/2

TITLE: “Funny Games”

RATING: R (Disturbing imagery, violence, gore and adult language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Michael Haneke. Cinematography by Darius Khondji.

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

WEB SITE: http://wip.warnerbros.com/funnygames

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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