A bold new entry into the ripe and rapidly expanding sub-genre of movies about people suffering though James Dolan’s New York (the much-loathed CEO of the Madison Square Garden Company was also namechecked in “Uncut Gems”), Tim Sutton’s “Funny Face” begins with a premise that will make perfect sense to any long-suffering New Yorker: What if the Joker were a Knicks fan? Well, begins may not be the most accurate verb to use here — as with most of Sutton’s languid and oppressively suggestive work (“Memphis,” “Pavilion”), the movie doesn’t start with a premise so much as it watches one thaw into shape over the course of its runtime — but that question is eventually pointed at us with all the subtlety of the Bat Signal.
It might even be the clearest thing that Saul (Cosmo Jarvis, the male lead from “Lady Macbeth”) ever says, as the mealy-mouthed Coney Island misanthrope launches into an impassioned rant after someone asks him why he doesn’t just root for the transplanted Brooklyn Nets: “This city doesn’t care about the losers! It only cares about money!” Barclays Center gets dunked on, and hard. In an age when unchecked gentrification and an ever-widening wealth gap have made New York inhospitable to its own lifeblood, Saul feels like his loyalty to the NBA’s most embarrassing team is the only thing holding the five boroughs together. He sputters and vibrates as his rage searches for the right words, and then he dons the horrific mask that floated down to him from the heavens one day — a plastic face split open into a deviant smile — and plots his revenge on the Kingpin-like real estate developer (Jonny Lee Miller) who’s turning his family’s apartment building into a parking lot. Some people just can’t appreciate how beautiful this city is.
A skillful and muscular step forward that can be captivating for how it applies Sutton’s impressionistic approach to mainstream iconography, “Funny Face” unfolds like a Gotham spin-off that’s been stripped of everything except for its symbolism. In a sense, that makes this familiar territory for Sutton, whose oblique “Dark Night” was inspired by the 2012 mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado multiplex, and responsive to the Batman of it all without being glib about it. His latest film likewise cleaves much closer to Gus Van Sant than it does to Christopher Nolan, as “Funny Face” — a dreadful title for a movie that calls for something with more graphic novel flavor — sleepwalks through a modern world in which greed has become so cartoonishly outsized that just trying to survive it can make anyone feel like a superhero.
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Even Saul, who feels like he’s bottling up an entire borough’s worth of anger for our protection. It doesn’t even seem as if he can talk to his grandparents (Rhea Pearlman and Dan Hedaya in one-scene roles) about their impending eviction — talking isn’t really his strong suit. A few blocks over, a young Muslim woman named Zama (newcomer Dela Meskienyar, breathing life into the most suffocated parts of Sutton’s script) can’t escape surveillance. At home, her ultra-strict aunt and uncle keep her on a tight leash and force her to wear the niqab that she’ll later come to reclaim as a source of power; at the local arcade, a photo of Trump seems to be following her from behind its lizard eyes.
Saul and Zama don’t have quite as much in common as their eventual meet-cute requires, but they’re able to appreciate the beauty they see in each other — behind their respective masks. And that glint of shared recognition will be their only weapon in the un-winnable fight against Miller’s nameless developer, whose villainous appetites firmly elevate “Funny Face” into graphic novel territory during an extended “sex” scene in which Miller sits motionless in his glass penthouse and glares into the camera while three naked women writhe around him. It’s one of several compositions that feel like a comic book panel brought to life; a brief trip into a parallel universe where Tim Sutton got to direct the “Daredevil” movie (stay tuned for the hilarious scene where Miller gets so angry in the back seat of his chauffeured SUV that he just screams “MONEY!!!”).
But in Tim Sutton’s more grounded take on the DC universe, the heroes and villains never really meet, let alone KAPOW! each other into submission. Instead, the bad guys wage their most dastardly attacks via lucrative contracts and bad legislation, hiding in their towers as people are put out on the streets. This just isn’t the kind of movie where Saul and Zama manage to stop the developer, or even attempt to try; this isn’t the kind of movie where anything happens, because everything has already happened, and now we just have to soak it up and hope to squeeze out a measure of solace. As with all of the director’s previous work, “Funny Face” is electric and moribund in equal measure, the simplicity of its story obscured by the opacity of its telling. The film is so unformed that it feels like its shots might disassociate from each other at any moment, but also so unsubtle that its script could’ve been sky-written over Brooklyn.
That obviousness isn’t a problem unto itself — not in such dangerously obvious times — though it does make it difficult to appreciate Saul and Zama as three-dimensional characters, and not just constructs. The film’s strongest passages have a way of making that feel like it was Sutton’s intention all along, as the scenes between the young lovers are so anemic that your attention can’t help but wander to what’s around them: To Lucas Gath’s tactile and desolate cinematography, Phil Mossman’s pulsing electro score, and the way that Sutton films New York like a giant fist is pushing down on the city and forcing all of its residents into the sea. Saul and Zama are doing what they can to stand their ground. Theirs is a story of resistance; of holding on, if not quite pushing back. We’ve lost control of Gotham’s skyline, and its soul has been replaced by a giant bank, but there will always be something beautiful about this place so long as the people who live here can see it in each other.
“Funny Face” premiered in the Encounters section at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.