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The Games Nobody Wanted to Play

by Rob Gonsalves

So you may or may not have heard that a movie called "Funny Games" came out this past weekend. Very likely, the next time you'll hear about it is when the DVD is announced. "Funny Games," Austrian director Michael Haneke's exacting remake of his own notorious 1997 meta-thriller, opened in just 274 theaters and grossed a paltry $510,958 — or $1,864 per theater. So what happens when you unleash a gut-wrenching assault on the American audience and the American audience doesn't show up? If Naomi Watts falls over in a forest and there's nobody there to hear, does she make a sound?

You might say, "Well, of course it didn't make any bank — it opened in, like, five theaters and my cousin's basement." Consider, though, the box-office take last weekend of In Bruges. Here's a flick that's been out for six weeks, dropped down to 211 theaters last weekend, and still managed to make $487,876. Now, that's less than Funny Games made. But it's not that much less.

And let's talk per-theater averages for a second. Married Life, Paranoid Park, Snow Angels — these are indie flicks playing in a tiny number of theaters (I'm talking double digits), and they all put more asses in seats, relatively, than Funny Games did. Hell, Last Year in Marienbad, playing in one theater in New York, scared up $5,965. Contempt, also in one theater, made $14,826 — actually the best per-theater showing of any film last weekend, including Horton Hears a Who.

So with all that out of the way, what's the deal here? Briefly, for the uninitiated, Funny Games is the tale of two psycho preppies (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who drop in on a family (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth are the parents) and brutalize them all night long. What makes the movie different is that it raises all sorts of narrative expectations that it then defies or frustrates. People are left feeling shell-shocked by the film, yet there's almost no onscreen violence. Whatever you're expecting to happen doesn't. It's as if Haneke took a standard home-invasion script and took out all the parts that allow an audience to enjoy it vicariously as a thriller, and left in the realistic wretchedness of the fear and pain. You're supposed to be able to guiltily enjoy what the psychos do to the helpless parents, kid, and dog as long as it's understood that the psychos will get their asses handed to them at the end. An audience can withstand a huge amount of chaos as long as order is restored eventually. Haneke refuses to play that game; his game is very different. This is what he did in the 1997 original, and it's what he did in the new version.

I'm always surprised when a much-buzzed-about film with name actors flops so badly. But then maybe I exist too much in the movie-blogosphere, where everyone knows who Michael Haneke is. A lot of people outside the film-geek environment couldn't even tell you who Tim Roth is. Show them a photo of Roth in some of his better-known movies, they'll say "Oh yeah, that guy." But he's not exactly a household name. Naomi Watts, on the other hand, lots of people have seen her, in the remake of Ringu and the remake of King Kong and the remake of Ringu 2. Damn, she's been in a lot of remakes.

Anyway, as with last year's Grindhouse, I'm wondering how a flick with this much buzz and notoriety going for it failed to find an audience. Now, some of you are way ahead of me: "Because it sucked, Rob. The original film sucked, and this was a shot-for-shot remake, so it sucked in exactly the same way." Well, we could debate that. I've seen the 1997 version, and found it riveting and a refreshing assault on clichés we take for granted. Critics were deeply divided on Funny Games '97. Either they felt pointlessly fucked with, or they responded with relief to a filmmaker who wasn't remotely (heh) interested in giving us the same old shit. We critics have seen all the clichés a hundred times each, so when a movie comes along and hides little bombs in the narrative to blow the shit out of whatever we're expecting, some of us really dig it. I like to be entertained, but I also like to be challenged.

The marketing probably had a bit to do with it. The trailer pretty much sold it as A Clockwork Orange 2: Die Oranger. Either this sort of thing gets your juices flowing or, as was widely reported, people in the theater are heard saying things like "That looks fucking sick" (and not in the Metalocalypse tone of "That looks fuckin' sick, dude!") or "Who would want to see that?"

Yeah, the marketing did its bit to torpedo the flick, when it was seen at all. I'm a bad one to ask, because it seemed like one of the TV stations that are always on in the background (I think G4) was playing commercials for the damn thing every half hour. To the point where I got sick of hearing "In the Hall of the Mountain King" or, when the marketing department was feeling particularly Kubrickian, "William Tell Overture." Elsewhere, though, apparently Funny Games got little or no airtime.

But even if the ad campaign had been as inescapable as the one for Horton Hears a Who, the movie had a built-in problem: It's really not an audience-friendly flick. The critics carpet-bombed this one, and not all of them were haters of the original. Some of them said, "Well, this is kind of a pointless and redundant exercise. Rent the original instead." Others, of course, hated the original and resented having to watch it all over again. And this is the sort of film that can be made or broken by reviews. It played in art houses, and the art-house crowd still reads reviews.

It even lost business from me, and I was psyched to see what the new cast would do with this material. I watched the original film a few days before the remake came out — a mistake, as it turned out, because once the original film was done with me, I felt like I really didn't need to see it re-enacted so soon. The closest theater playing it was 40 minutes away. (I was lucky in that respect; some of you would've had to drive three hours or more to find it if you wanted to see it that badly.) If I could've just nipped out to a 'plex 15 minutes away, I might've gone for it. But maybe not even then. I'll definitely give it a day in court on DVD. But the point is, I was its perfect audience, and I didn't go see it either.

Then again, I'm not Haneke's perfect audience. Back in 1997, Haneke wanted to make Funny Games in America. He saw it as a film that American audiences needed to see. It didn't work out, so he made it in Austria. A decade later, some people wanted to remake it, and Haneke offered to do it himself, if he could get Naomi Watts to be in it. She agreed. The film was made. So Haneke got another shot at the American audience that he feels would benefit from the film's harsh lesson. For this to work, though, it needed to open in every multiplex in America. It needed marketing that would lure the Saw fans. It got none of that. It got rather timid treatment by Warner Independent Pictures, which may have just wanted to bury the thing. It got art-house marketing and an art-house release. The problem is that the art-house crowd isn't the audience Haneke wants. He wants the teens and twentysomethings who think violence is a joke. The art-house crowd already knows what Haneke is telling them.

But Haneke is such a perverse bastard that he could conceivably take the film's box-office failure as a triumph. His famous line about Funny Games is "The people who don't need it will leave, and the people who need it will stay to the end." Well, apparently there were a lot of people who didn't need it, to the extent of not even showing up. And the people who needed it either didn't know it existed or were put off by word of mouth. Even if fewer people read reviews any more, they might stop by the IMDb message board for the film, which features such subject headers as "Meaningless and boring," "TOTAL CRAP!", "I don't really see the point of this type of film," and my favorite, "You're not supposed to enjoy this film, people." Well, no, you're not. But telling people they're not supposed to enjoy something is not exactly ringing praise.

Y'know, if you make a movie that says "Fuck you, American audience!" loudly enough, you can't really be surprised when the American audience responds in kind.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2448
originally posted: 03/18/08 13:18:24
last updated: 03/19/08 14:37:52
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