I Used to Be Funny review – Rachel Sennott can’t save messy PTSD drama

Estimated read time 4 min read

There’s a particular, distinctly online note – dead-eyed, chaotic, teetering between hyper self-consciousness and delusional confidence – that comedian Rachel Sennott can hit so effectively it will temporarily and memorably spark its container: Twitter, where she rose to prominence as a self-aware zillennial comedy It Girl; Bodies Bodies Bodies, where she provided the bulk of the horror comedy’s actual zingers; The Idol, where her bit part as a pop star’s assistant was one of the misbegotten HBO series’ few highlights. As a lead – in Emma Seligman’s claustrophobic feature Shiva Baby and, less successfully, in Seligmans’ follow-up comedy Bottoms – Sennott stretched her shtick but remained most successful in this familiar, self-deprecating zone, though she has hinted at something darker and less irony-pilled.

I Used to Be Funny, the feature debut from the Canadian writer-director Ally Pankiw, overambitiously tries to combine Sennott’s proven comedic chops with a trauma plot in the format of a thriller. Sennott plays Sam Cowell, a Toronto-based twentysomething reeling from a mysterious (though entirely predictable) Traumatic Event handled like a lump of coal (“things have been different since, you know …”). The fallout has made her, according to small glances at a Twitter-like timeline, a social media pariah and a recluse. Once a promising standup, Sam is now nearly bedridden, floating through life via the emotional and financial support of her friends, fellow comics Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon, by far the best asset of this movie), and concerned ex-boyfriend Noah (Ennis Esmer).

When the 14-year-old girl Sam once nannied goes missing, the film splinters into two messy timelines: the present, in which Sam attempts to heal and re-enter the standup scene, and a series of derivatively filmed PTSD flashbacks, where Sam bonded with the motherless, sullen teenage girl, Brooke (Olga Petsa) and coexisted with Brooke’s father Cameron (Jason Jones), a widowed cop who took special interest in Sam’s comedy. (Add I Used to Be Funny to the list of movies arbitrarily set in 2019, at least in one timeline, to avoid any mention of the pandemic).

That this all fails to cohere is less the fault of Sennott, who, in the sweaty fugue of traumatic flashbacks, demonstrates some promise playing more straightforwardly dramatic moments, than the film’s with an unwieldy tone and flat attempts at suspense. Pankiw’s writing lurches awkwardly between network soap played straight and grounded, internet-inflected banter from comedians invoking the much more successful Hacks – Sam, dripping water from a bath, learns of Brooke’s disappearance from the local news to an ominous score by Ames Bessada; Paige, seeing Sam’s distress, says she should call the police, “even though, Acab, obviously”. It’s a tough chasm to bridge, and the directorial style, which apes the work of several superior shows and films such as The Tale and I May Destroy You that visualize fragmented traumatic memory, only accentuates the jarring discord, to the point that its insights on PTSD feel hackneyed.

If I’m being generous, I imagine the intent was to convey the slow, haphazard process of recovery – setbacks and panic attacks amid well-worn jokes with friends, moving toward catharsis. That’s one of several promising ideas in I Used to Be Funny that merit further exploration in future work, among them: the tension between on- v off-stage persona, and between local and regional success; the relationship between teen and older mentor; the fallout from viral notoriety; and making comedy in the #MeToo backlash. But I Used to Be Funny merely gestures at these, before devolving into a thriller devoid of suspense undercut by bizarre attempts at self-deprecating, girl-mess comedy, such as Sam using a library card instead of ID during a crisis.

Sennott is a talented comic; her failure to span the film’s vastly disparate tones isn’t so much a comment on her dramatic abilities as a failure of the film’s. And she’s underserved by an ultimate failure of imagination, to not have anything but the worst possible thing happen to its primary female characters, part of a larger issue of fatigue with the pre-eminence of trauma to merit a story. Still, for a debut feature, there are hints of something better, and more coherent, to come. Like Sam’s mid-recovery comedy, this is work in progress.

  • I Used to Be Funny is out in UK and US cinemas now

Source: theguardian.com

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