House of Wax would be grotesque even without Paris Hilton, plus Funny Ha Ha is a haunting original.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
May 6 2005 11:42 AM

Psycho Killer, Qu'Est-Ce Que C'est?

House of Wax would be grotesque even without Paris Hilton, plus Funny Ha Ha is a haunting original.

The unabashedly teensy-budgeted Funny Ha Ha, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, is actually more like Funny Strange—or even Funny Unsettling. You might be tempted to walk out in the first 20 minutes, which seem artless and aimless: not very fascinating people making not very fascinating small talk in drab settings. The by-default protagonist, Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), is a listless 23-year-old between jobs and quietly smitten with an old friend, Alex (Christian Rudder), who has just broken up with his girlfriend. Does Alex like her? Other friends, among them Alex's sister, don't quite know. Alex, it seems, doesn't quite know. Marnie doesn't communicate her affections very forcefully. In fact, she does nothing very forcefully. She drinks a little at parties, she lies around, she hangs out with laid-back friends, and she floats.

Floating, indecision, the indefinite: This is the gray arena of Funny Ha Ha. The surprise is how the movie comes together and gets under your skin before you even know why you should give a damn. What seems improvised and random turns out to be controlled, at times cunningly shaped, and the surface of nonsequiturs and random shrugs conceals fairly intense emotions—the emotions of self-consciously cool, easy, inarticulate people afraid to pin anything down. The nonaction is set (in what appears to be Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville) in midsummer and has a midsummer formlessness—an extension of the kind of languor you feel in those hazy dog days before the sudden hardness and definition of fall.

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Dollenmayer becomes more and more fun to read. A young woman with long limbs and sleepy eyes on a big, open face, she's just the sort of beauty whose self-effacing vibe would make her less than magnetic to really handsome guys and madly irresistible to nerds—who think that maybe, just maybe, they'd have a shot. The one she attracts is played by the director, who makes himself look very unprepossessing, indeed. In fact, he's cringe-worthy. The character he plays, Mitchell, tries to make a virtue of his self-deprecation: Loathing himself is obviously all he has to think about. He's so unappealing that it really would be a sign of self-disrespect for Marnie to go to bed with him. Fortunately, he's too lame even to press his case. But she'd be no better off with adorable Alex, whose boneless diffidence seems increasingly selfish and calculated.

Funny Ha Ha is a bit of a stunt. How can intelligent people, even slackers, be this vaporous? No one talks about life, the world, politics, music, movies—anything concrete. But out of this vaporousness, and within the narrow parameters he has set, Bujalski has made an indelible film... 11:34 PT

Wax: Tolerably sick 
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Wax: Tolerably sick

How dispiriting that the old Vincent Price 3-D potboiler House of Wax—itself a remake of an early '30s Lionel Atwill/Fay Wray melodrama, The Mystery of the Wax Museum—should be remade as another grisly variation on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Highly sexualized young people on a road trip stumble into a remote backwoods area full of inbred, sadistic freaks and get themselves hideously mutilated, tortured, and killed while the camera lingers.

The new House of Wax (Warner Bros.), directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, isn't bad as these things go, although these things go nowhere a healthy individual should want to. Having never claimed to be a healthy individual, I found it tolerable. It's nowhere near as punishing as Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses, but it's increasingly tense and resourceful and, in the end, it gets the sick job done. (Actually, Zombie evinced a kind of relish—along with some actual talent for staging and composition—that gave his film a certain je ne sais quoi. OK, je ne veux pas savoir quoi.) The centerpiece in this one is a machine that rains scalding wax over a still-living young buck, whose subsequent smooth visage conceals the fact that his skin has been … Never mind.

House of Wax takes forever to get going and features too much foreplay and too many false scares (one is too many). But at least there is plenty of time to reflect on the phenomenon of Paris Hilton, who plays an especially promiscuous victim. There will be a competition among critics for the best Hilton insult. Here's my first: Her attention span is so short that she can't even maintain her concentration while running away from a psycho. Here's my second: Her vacant expression with a steel rod through her head is no different from her expression the rest of the time. Others I heard just leaving the screening room: "She's already wax." "With a pole taking out half her brain, who'd know the difference?"

Maybe the ultimate insult is that she makes her co-star Elisha Cuthbert seem, by comparison, the sexiest and most interesting actress in modern cinema. Cuthbert was an irritant for three seasons of 24, especially the dire third. In House of Wax, she is a goddess. Those pillowy lips. Those expressive eyes. That jigglevision that is the remake's answer to 3-D. Hail, Elisha, the new scream queen!

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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