Rachel Sennott excels in a film that never rises to the level of her performance.
Having already more than proven her comedic chops in the great Shiva Baby and the not-so-great Bodies Bodies Bodies, I Used to Be Funny finds rising star Rachel Sennott showing off her dramatic chops for a change. In this task, she succeeds. Alas, that’s more than can be said about the film as a whole. It proves to be little more than an angsty muddle that never quite seems to know what it is trying to accomplish.
She plays Sam, a stand-up comedian whose rising career stalled due to a recent traumatic incident. She’s been unable to return to the stage or do much of anything ever since. Instead, she just holes up in a house she shares with two loving but worried roommates. Then, one day, she hears a news report about a missing 14-year-old girl named Brooke (Olga Petsa). Realizing she may have been the last person to see Brooke alive jolts her from her malaise.
While mulling over what to do next, she flashes back to two years earlier. Hired by Brooke’s policeman father (Jason Jones), Sam worked as a nanny and companion for Brooke during a difficult period while the girl’s mother slowly died. After some initial hiccups, Brooke finally takes to Sam. Unfortunately, the aforementioned trauma disrupts this healthy, growing connection. It turns both of their lives upside down, sending them both down bad paths they can’t seem to escape from until they process what happened.
The film’s main point of attraction—Sennott’s performance—proves to be the best thing about it. She does an excellent job of covering Sam’s emotional gamut, from the cocky self-confidence she exudes during her stand-up performances to the emotional depths that she plunges into as her life—not to mention her friendship with Brooke—becomes a nightmare through no fault of her own. If I Used to Be Funny does nothing else, it offers ample proof of Sennott’s gifts as a dramatic actress.
Making her feature debut, writer-director Ally Pankiw tells a familiar tale of upper-middle-class ennui. Even Sam’s trauma will likely be easy to guess because of that familiarity. Additionally, the filmmaker’s use of dual timelines is not entirely successful. The shifts between them tend to confuse rather than clarify. At times it is difficult to figure out exactly where we are in the story.
I Used to Be Funny also handles the mystery aspect of Brooke’s disappearance in a curious manner. Crashingly obvious clues to her whereabouts go conveniently overlooked or ignored until the time comes for them to be story points. Plus, considering that the missing person is the daughter of a cop, the seeming lack of police interest feels like a contrivance.
The film’s main point of attraction—Sennott’s performance—proves to be the best thing about it.
The initial scenes between Sam and Brooke are engaging—the two bond over a shared fondness for Riverdale and Twilight. Sadly, this aspect devolves in the latter half into something akin to a Euphoria knockoff. Worse, at one point, a character remarks about how close it all feels to Euphoria, a quip intended to be cheekily self-aware that lands with a clunk. Then I Used To Be Funny arrives at a resolution that feels unearned, given what precedes it.
The film also overplays its hand in its depiction of Brooke’s father. The intention seems clear. Initially present him as a clueless dad with no idea how to deal with his teen daughter. Then reveal darker aspects of his character as the plot unwinds. However, Jones plays him so loathsome from the get-go that it beggars belief Sam would ever take the job.
Ultimately, I Used to Be Funny proves to be as aimless as its heroine, though nowhere near as interesting. It has ambitions, I suppose, but it doesn’t know how to execute them. As a result, the feature kind of stumbles around before arriving at a finale nowhere near as cathartic as it would like. That said, Sennott is very good here. I cannot quite recommend that you see it. Still, hopefully, someone out there will catch her work here, realize her versatility, and give her a role in a project more deserving of her talents.