Friday, July 19, 2024

“I USED TO BE FUNNY”

THE STORY – Stand-up comedian Sam struggles with PTSD and considers joining the search for a missing teenage girl she used to nanny.

THE CAST – Rachel Sennott, Olga Petsa, Jason Jones, Sabrina Jalees, Caleb Hearon & Dani Kind

THE TEAM – Ally Pankiw (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes


Rachel Sennott has developed a unique comedic persona in a short period of time. She’s dry and witty, but the dryness seemingly emanates from an exasperation with the world around her. She’s not above it all; she’s worn down by it all. Sennott’s performances in “Shiva Baby” and “Bottoms” are calibrated to the specific demands of their respective films. Still, they’re unified by the nagging feeling that her characters have been through the wringer. “I Used to Be Funny” takes this feeling, this subtextual implication, and makes it the core text.

The film unfolds in two distinct timelines. One sees Sam Cowell (Sennott) as a perky and outgoing comedian who moonlights as a babysitter. The other picks up with Sam years later, and she’s retired from comedy and suffering from PTSD. The correlation between the two timelines is evident from the word go, with the former building towards and the latter unpacking the traumatic event that forged Sam’s PTSD in the first place. It’s a structurally effective, if not entirely original, way to tell a story, especially when considering how Sennott effectively splits her screen persona into distinct “before” and “after” stages.

The actress is in familiar territory during the first timeline, brandishing her charisma and real-life stand-up chops during scenes in which Sam performs. She’s affable and confident in her professional future, and she quickly develops a bond with Brooke (Olga Petsa), the teenager she’s been hired to babysit. The sisterly connection they develop serves as the emotional thrust for the second timeline, in which Brooke has gone missing, and a nearly-bedridden Sam decides to look for her.

There’s a lot to appreciate about “I Used to Be Funny,” and unsurprisingly, Sennott is at the top of the list. The actress pushes her dramatic chops further than ever before and proves she can deliver. Sam’s strained dynamic with Brooke’s father, Cameron (Jason Jones), is where most of the film’s trauma stems from, and without giving spoilers away, Sennott’s ability to convey the discomfort, uncertainty, and overwhelming insecurity of her character’s traumatic incident without having to rely on dialogue is what allows the film to be as effective as it is. Few actresses could convincingly run the gamut from this harrowing encounter to joking about “Twilight,” but that’s precisely what she does here.

Ally Pankiw’s direction is appropriately subdued during the Sam-centric scenes, but she fails to evoke the urgency that the Brooke subplot demands, given how big a part it plays in the film’s final act. Situations and exchanges that should be generating tension, or at least fear for the well-being of the main characters, are repeatedly undercut by Pankiw’s serviceable staging and a desire to work jokes into opportune moments. “I Used to Be Funny” is, fittingly, very funny at times, but the film would have benefited from a willingness to play certain dramatic moments straight.

There’s a self-conscious, self-deprecating bent to Sam’s character that suits both the story and the actress playing her, but when these same tendencies are applied to the film itself, it hampers the overall viewing experience. It’s the same frequency that’s informed the last decade of prestige dramedy TV, as evidenced by “Hacks,” “I May Destroy You,” and “Fleabag.” Still, these stories have broader canvases on which to examine and, in most cases, comment on the detriments of this interjecting self-awareness.”

“I Used to Be Funny” tries to ride this wave and gets decently far on the strength of its compelling lead performance. However, it lacks the runtime to explore its own self-deprecating crutches, which simply leaves them as crutches. The ending of “I Used to Be Funny” is sweet, given the dire circumstances in which it occurs. I just wish the film was more confident in its dramatic side to deliver on the promise of its diptych premise.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Rachel Sennott delivers a magnetic lead performance, and the different timelines give her a chance to display her emotional range. Ally Pankiw's screenplay is structurally clever.

THE BAD - Struggles to generate the tension and the sustained dramatic stakes needed during the second timeline.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 6/10

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Danilo Castro
Danilo Castro
Music lover. Writer for Screen Rant, Noir Foundation, Classic Movie Hub & Little White Lies.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Rachel Sennott delivers a magnetic lead performance, and the different timelines give her a chance to display her emotional range. Ally Pankiw's screenplay is structurally clever.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Struggles to generate the tension and the sustained dramatic stakes needed during the second timeline.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>6/10<br><br>"I USED TO BE FUNNY"