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Originally published Friday, March 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Funny Games": If you watch this, the torturers win

Who's enduring more punishment in "Funny Games" — the terrorized couple or the audience? Director Michael Haneke's U.S. remake of his 1997...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Movie review 1.5 stars

"Funny Games," with Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. 107 minutes. Rated R for terror, violence and some language. Several theaters.

Who's enduring more punishment in "Funny Games" — the terrorized couple or the audience?

Director Michael Haneke's U.S. remake of his 1997 Austrian sado-fest comes after "waterboarding" has become a familiar term and Americans are sensitized to torture. But it's just the same, and the joke's still on you.

This time, Naomi Watts (also one of the executive producers) and Tim Roth play the affluent couple. When they arrive at their lake house for the summer with their son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart), some old neighbors floating past on their boat have a pair of white-clad, glove-wearing young guests and seem oddly uncomfortable.

Soon, one of them, named Paul (Brady Corbet), appears at the back door — despite a security fence — asking the suspicious Ann (Watts) if he can borrow some eggs. Politeness is strained as he drops them on the floor, and the strain turns to tension as he drops another handful and refuses to leave. Husband George (Roth) comes indoors with the smarter one, Peter (Michael Pitt), who showed up as he was preparing his boat.

When George has had enough and slaps one of the absurdly polite-talking preppies, they overpower him and the games begin. Often in excruciatingly long takes, the family is abused, forced to make awful choices and left alone to struggle for escape. Nothing and no one is off-limits. The violence is mostly off-screen, but that doesn't diminish — and may actually enhance — its shocking, transgressive extent.

But hang on: Despite the sight of Watts hopping around bound up and in lingerie, it's not an exploitation film. It's a critique of you for consuming them. Peter breaks the fourth wall several times, looking into the camera during the misery and asking, "Do you think they stand a chance?" and "Do you think it's enough?" After Ann makes a bold move, the film rewinds and takes it away. See how you're getting played, you gullible jerk?

The performances are good all around — don't underestimate Roth's as the weakling. Haneke's also an expert at crafting tension and unsettling violence that hurts and isn't stylized or fetishized.

But that's outweighed by the tedium of the action — a looooong scene of Watts hopping from living room to kitchen nearly did me in — and of whatever statement he's trying to make about the consumption of violence. Are you complicit for watching the stuff? Would you be less of a jerk if you walked out? Is he wallowing in the thing he's critiquing and consequently a bigger jerk?

His work is always provocative and can be shattering (2001's "The Piano Teacher") or just irritating experiments that amount to nothing (argue about 2005's "Cache" all you want). Here he seems to be giving the finger to anyone dumb enough to patronize him. No answers after the painful ordeal. Just a pretentious prankster who confuses emptiness for enigma.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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