The very first thing Austrian director Michael Haneke shows us in the English-language remake of his own film Funny Games is an SUV towing a sailboat down an interstate. It's Haneke's U.S. debut, produced by star Naomi Watts, and the European director wants us to know who these Americans are before we meet them: They're bourgeois fuel-guzzling yuppies, gallivanting around the country to their barely used lake houses in pristine Timberland clothes with little Nokia cell phones. Please, he seems to say, hate them as much as I do.
Haneke has built most of his career on cultural critiques dressed up as thrillers-his 2005 French film Cache ("Hidden") angrily abused its audience's guilty social conscience, but it was tense, subtle filmmaking without any easy answers. You could excuse its lack of philosophical nuance the same way you can excuse the doofusy psychology in most of Alfred Hitchcock's films.
Watching Funny Games, on the other hand, is a little bit like finding out that a stranger has spanked your child. The film follows wealthy couple Ann and George (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and their little boy Georgie (Devon Gearhart) through 24 hours of terrorism in their vacation home at the hands of Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), two prancing preppies with charm-school manners who tease and humiliate the family, all while chatting to the camera and taking "encouragement" from the audience. If lines like "You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment" are too subtle, Haneke also has understated images like a blood-spattered television, too.
The film isn't a total waste-it's certainly tense, and one of Haneke's cleverer meta-jokes is that while most of the violence takes place out of the frame, the film is still far, far too scary for anything but an R rating (like Cache, Funny Games has no score, making it that much more frightening). Ultimately, though, the technique can't transcend the conceit. In setting out to study the Ugly American in his natural habitat, Haneke has trotted out a parade of elderly clichés and risks becoming a European stereotype himself: a sarcastic, amoral scold.