‘I Used to Be Funny’ Review: A Complex Canadian Seriocomedy in Which Laughter Suffers a Breakdown

For many viewers, the scenes hardest to take in viral streaming cringefest “Baby Reindeer” weren’t the ones of overt stalking or abuse, but those depicting the DOA stand-up comedy of Richard Gadd’s alter ego — moments whose flop-sweating public failure seemed to stretch into tortuous infinity. Canadian feature “I Used to Be Funny” likewise hinges on a paralyzing intersection between stand-up, anxiety and depression. Mercifully, however, here it’s not the protagonist’s stage act that is the cause of massive self-doubt. Instead, it’s a host of external problems that conspire to make her incapable of performing …as well as eating, sleeping and leaving her apartment.

Ally Pankiw’s big-screen debut recalls such prior indie features as “The Big Sick,” “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Obvious Child” in successfully using a comedy milieu to place a leavening frame around some very serious issues. In this case, an aspiring comedian played by Rachel Sennott of “Shiva Baby” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies” takes a mental-health plunge in the wake of multiple traumatizing events. Not all are even her own experiences, and some we don’t suss out until late in the director’s trickily structured screenplay.

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That convoluted storytelling tack at times threatens to muffle “Funny’s” potent narrative agenda. Yet in the end, this ambitious, imperfect drama does pull off a complex thematic mix, encompassing issues from grief to sexual assault, with a generous helping of humor to lend its darkness some light. Utopia is releasing theatrically in New York on June 7, Los Angeles on June 14, and to digital on June 18.

Samantha Cowell aka Sam (Sennott) is, indeed, funny, and we glean from a club audience’s cheers before her entrance that she is getting a following as a result. She has an adoring boyfriend in Noah (Ennis Esmer), and shares a flat with Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon), two fellow aspirants on the comedy scene. The gigs they’re getting don’t do much to pay the rent, so Sam acquires a job as an au pair, something she’s done in the past.

It’s a tricky situation, as 12-year-old Brooke (Olga Petsa) is dealing with a terminally ill mother. Father Cameron (Jason Jones) is an emotionally remote, rather humorless cop whose response to this domestic turmoil is simply burying himself in work. He obviously wants hired help to do the parental managing at this critical time so he won’t have to. Fortunately, the two young women hit it off, Brooke allowing Sam some nominal authority while mostly treating her as a big-sister bestie.

But all of this is in the past; the present is a disaster zone in which most of the characters are estranged. Brooke is now a rebellious, motherless 14-year-old reported as missing, though she did surface long enough to throw a rock through our heroine’s front-door window. Sam can barely get out of bed, her stasis so severe that supportive housemates congratulate her on taking a shower. She’s abandoned Noah, her nascent career, any work or social life. The cause for this despair — not to mention the furious rift with her former charge — takes a while to arrive at in a fragmentary progress whose leaps back and forth in time build intrigue, but also stir a degree of viewer frustration.

It all begins to clarify in the film’s last half hour through courtroom scenes where Sam is the plaintiff in a criminal prosecution — though the defense uses online comedy-act clips to tarnish her credibility. Pankiw spares us anything graphic in the eventual flashback to a line-crossing incident. Left somewhat ambiguous, it’s powerfully discomfiting nonetheless. After that, subsequent present-day sequences orchestrating a more upbeat fadeout for the main characters feel a bit rushed, but well-earned.

Those later revelations and developments redeem a midsection where the film’s cut-up chronology stops being its own reward, coming off more as an irksome avoidance of key intel. Finally, however, “I Used to Be Funny” does pull together diverse tonal and thematic strands to impressive effect. Particularly admirable is the way Pankiw embeds the stage-ready snappy patter between Sam and her friends (it also helps her bond with Brooke) so organically into the story that by the time our heroine utters the title phrase, we fully grok how wrenching a realization that is for her.

A born channel for dyspeptic Gen Z humor, Sennott (who co-wrote last year’s high school comedy “Bottoms”) is ideally cast as a character whose brash, self-deprecating flippancy can turn into chronic self-loathing. Petsa is also expert as a bright but increasingly troubled teen (albeit a bit unconvincing as an initial pre-teen). The major supporting actors bring appealing warmth and wit, while Jones provides enough shading to Cameron that a somewhat underdeveloped role provokes unease without turning into cardboard villainy.

After a decade of music videos, shorts and TV episodes, Pankiw brings considerable assurance to her first feature. She takes care to assemble well-thought-out design elements that lift this enterprise a cut above average in visual terms amongst medium-budgeted comedies. The only modest minus is a soundtrack overdependent on rather bland pop songs.

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