Movies

“I Used to Be Funny” Review

Rachel Sennott does drama just as well as she does comedy

(Courtesy Level Film)

The last time we heard from the talented Rachel Sennott, she was starring alongside The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri in last year’s Bottoms, a queered-upped and stylized takedown of the teen sex comedy. Before that, Sennott made waves in 2020′s brilliant yet anxiety-forward Shiva Baby. In both cases, Sennott tapped into her funny bone for nuanced and hysterical performances; in her new film I Used to Be Funny from writer/director Ally Pankiw, Sennott proves she’s every bit as adept at drama as she is at comedy.

Sennott plays stand-up comic Sam in the aftermath of some PTSD-inducing event she endured while working her day job as an au pair for a cop’s kid. Though we don’t know precisely what happened for a healthy chunk of the film, we do quickly learn Sam believes she’s been unable to be funny since it all went down—she can barely even leave the house. Sam’s situation grows even more intense when her former charge (Olga Petsa) goes missing, leaving her to grapple with whether or not she needs to become involved.

Pankiw’s script cleverly doles out expositional breadcrumbs over time, particularly as each new bit of information consistently recontextualizes both present-day and flashback scenes that illustrate Sam’s journey. This tack makes each exchange feel loaded in retrospect without the sting that comes when a director underestimates an audience’s patience. That tense run-in with the ex (Enis Esmer) during which Sam seemed so selfish, so standoffish? Totally understandable in the long-run. The way she practically sprints out of a coffee shop when she encounters her former boss’s sister? Makes perfect sense, as do numerous other examples.

A capable enough cast of supporting characters surrounds Sennott, including roommates and fellow comics Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon), who pop in briefly to deliver pithy lines about ACAB and wokeness and trauma. While these characters can feel like little more than sounding board plot devices, they do at least aid in fleshing out Sam’s character (you can tell a lot about someone from the company they keep and all that), and the same goes for scattered glimpses into Sam’s previous stand-up sets and her takes on sex positivity, misogyny, violence against women and gender politics.

By the time Funny reveals the terrible exchange upon which everything hinges, the reveal isn’t particularly surprising, though it contains a certain art in its portrayal of the borderline mundane, albeit sudden, nature of life-altering events. What does it say that certain tragedies feel almost humdrum in the grand scheme of life? Funny doesn’t wrap up neatly, then, though it does conclude with a glimmer of hope that time can heal, at least a little bit, when we face down our demons rather than allow them to consume us.

8

+Sennott is so good; disparate timelines executed well

-Supporting cast is so-so; drawn-out soundtrack moments

I Used to Be Funny

Directed by Pankiw

With Sennott, Petsa, Esmer, Jalees and Hearon

Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 105 min.

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