Film Review: I Used To Be Funny


I Used To Be Funny
Director: Ally Pankiw

Barn 12
In Theatures: 06.14

The nonlinear approach to storytelling has been a popular tool for modern writing directors, including Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. I Used To Be Funny is the first film I’ve seen to use the technique to portray what it’s like to live with PTSD, and it’s remarkably—and even unsettlingly—effective.

Sam Cowell (Rachel Sennott, Shiva Baby, Bottoms) is a stand-up comedian who used to work as an au pair, watching over blossoming teenager Brooke Renner (Olga Petsa, Mixtape) for two years. Brooke’s mother was losing a battle with a terminal illness, and her father, Cameron (Jason Jones, best known as a former correspondent on The Daily Show) needed help. Sam is no longer working in the job, and Brooke has gone missing after briefly showing up at Sam’s house for an angry confrontation while under the influence. As Sam tries to decide whether to join in the search to find Brooke, her debilitating PTSD renders her unable to get on stage and tell jokes, or to deal with her relationship with her boyfriend, Noah (Ennis Esmer, Private Eyes, Blindspot). As Sam gets triggered by the situation with Brooke, the story of the life-altering events that led both of them to this moment in time play out, intercut with the present-day story, and Sam must decide whether to try to find a way to move forward.

I Used To Be Funny has a lot to juggle, as the tone can shift abruptly, depending on which part of the story is the current focus. The role that stand-up comedy plays in a devastatingly serious story is challenging to reconcile. Overall, writer/director Ally Pankiw (Feel Good) does outstanding work and deals with many timely and thought-provoking subjects in one story while rarely making it feel like it’s too much. As a person who both struggles with PTSD and has a background in comedy, I found Pankiw’s approach to portraying trauma and its role in the world of humor to be insightful and disarmingly real. Those who are holding it against the film, saying that it “can’t decide what it’s trying to be,” are missing the fact that this is exactly the point—it’s a story of trying to figure out how to reconcile existence in two entirely disparate worlds and wondering if either one will fully shut out the other. 

The relationship between Sam and Brooke is so genuine that it’s hard not to become highly invested in it, and the one major misstep that Pankiw makes comes from becoming so attached to the characters that the urge to give them a happy ending may have been too overpowering. The ending that Pankiw gives us may be the one we want to see, but it’s not the one that best serves a film that has, up to this point, been rooted in honesty.

Sennott is an actor whose presence instantly draws me to a film, and her portrayal of Sam—a character who is endearing, sympathetic and maddening—is mesmerizing in its complexity. Petsa is just as captivating and heartbreaking as Brooke, and she plays as a real teenager rather than an adult’s idea of one. Jones is very impressive in a tricky role, and Esmer expertly matches Sennott’s energy. Sabrina Jalees (Portrait of a Serial Monogamist) and Caleb Hearon (Jurassic World: Dominion) are memorable as Sam’s fellow comedians and roommates, Paige and Phillip, respectively. The irrepressible comic relief roommates can kill a movie if they are badly played or too stereotypical: Jalees and Hearon deserve praise for making them real and interesting.

I Used To Be Funny is an affecting and compelling film that pulled me in so completely that it kept me awake for hours trying to process it. While the wrongheaded ending keeps it from achieving true greatness, it’s a daring and poignant film that managed to feel like something I hadn’t seen before, and it’s well worth taking the time to see.  –Patrick Gibbs

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