The "Funny Girl" is all growed up.
Funny Lady is a lot like Barbra Streisand: a mysterious beast, clearly talented but nonetheless constantly towing the line between endearing and annoying. Carved with much skill in some spots, and coasting in others, Funny Lady stood to rejuvenate the genre of musical comedies. It is a sequel to the 1968 breakout hit Funny Girl, where Barbra Streisand played the all-singing, all-dancing comedienne extraordinaire Fanny Brice. That film was beloved, and a hit follow-up could have kick-started the genre. Instead, Funny Lady serves as a reminder of how hard it is to do a musical well. The original was hailed for its old-Hollywood attention to detail, thoughtful story, and magnetic performances by Streisand and Omar Sharif (Lawrence Of Arabia). Funny Lady tries to recreate the charms of the first film, but in doing so succeeds only to highlight some of the trappings of a musical when there's no story to hang the songs on.
Facts of the Case
Funny Lady picks up a few years after Funny Girl left off, and Fanny is more mature. The Depression is in full swing, and her career is lackluster. She's still spunky, but less the wide-eyed doe she was in the first film. She is approached by Billy Rose (The Godfather's James Caan), a longtime fan, about partnering up for a new musical. Fanny knows that Billy is slick, but she can't decide if that's a good or bad thing. Needing a hit, and intrigued by Billy, she comes aboard. Fanny and Billy work on the project, and each other, and find that in love and theater, even the most seemingly doomed production can create an inspired partnership.
I can't say what it is. The voice, maybe. The aura of diva-ness sure doesn't help. And it's not her infamous proboscis, because I liked Roxanne. Whatever it is, Barbra Streisand rubs me the wrong way (despite being stepmother to one of The Goonies). I watched the movie a few times, because I found it so hard to determine what my major malfunction was with Barbra Streisand. However, since I'd rather slight someone else than look too deep into my own inadequacies, I'm going to settle for the notion that Streisand simply sucks. I would imagine that this film is better when not filtered through the Streisand-Sucks Postulate, but despite efforts, this is the only perspective I can give. I would feel bad if this weren't a shameless sequel, and if there wasn't another judge on the site who listed Funny Girl as one of her favorite movies. But since it is a sequel, which are generally contemptible, and since it did somehow find its way to me instead of someone who enjoys these types of things, I'm calling this one as I see it. And from here, it's stank.
Let's start out with the good things. James Caan sure was a winning presence when he was a young man, and he stands out in every scene he's in. Unfortunately, this is entirely because of Caan's own charms, not the character. The fact that he can deliver his lines with a straight face is admirable. I suppose the dialogue is meant to reflect staccato Broadway banter. Whether it's because of a weak repartee between the actors, or bad dialogue, it doesn't work. Relationships never really involve all the cute wit and wisdom that we sometimes want to think they do. The relationships that are built on quips are never true love affairs. In movies, we often forgive this, but this incongruity is painfully apparent in the strained pairing of Fanny and Billy. Billy, though clearly intrigued by Fanny, still seems like the kind of guy who ultimately wouldn't be interested in her for more than a couple weeks. The affections the duo claim to have for each other never make sense with their characters.
Weakness in the design of the characters is ultimately the film's downfall, and it tries to make up for it with music. Musical interludes are interspersed generously with the movie's story, and are sumptuously filmed. The interludes are supposed to elevate the audience the way theater does, and transcend the "real world" surroundings these two characters find themselves in, to understand how they feel in their heart of hearts (done effectively in West Side Story and even Annie). Since these characters are so banal and stilted, however, this transcendence inverts. It comes across as a manipulation that isn't working. Every saccharine moment in the music and in Fanny and Billy's relationship sticks out without the support of a genuine relationship between the characters. It's the equivalent of a nameless soldier dying in a war movie. We don't know when or how it's coming exactly, but we know that it is. Yet we're usually unaffected when it arrives because we don't really care for the character. Funny Lady makes the mistake of making Fanny little more than a soldier of love, and we never sense her pain, or her fear of one day not being loved, by Billy or by an audience.
The movie has some wonderful images, and looks great in widescreen. The transfer was better than it needed to be, and showed the astonishing production design of the live sequences. The sets shift from stunted to stunning, and both are effective, with Fanny's apartment a believable size, almost more like a set for a play than a movie apartment. The sights married with sound are impressive, it not moving, and highlight how effective a musical can be when done well. I was reminded of the "Flight of the Valkries" scene in Apocalypse Now. While that scene is obviously not a typical musical number, it does add a surrealness to the proceedings which, when married with character and story depth, can be effective. Here nothing has that weight, and the music seems to drag on (though it might have been appropriate for Wagner's masterpiece to accompany the first appearance by Streisand's sneezer).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Musicals rarely receive lavish production values, and it was interesting to see here. There's something to be said for the general spirit of this type of movie, and it did make me wish that more people wanted to see something like this done well.
Funny Lady is not worth watching unless you're a die-hard for the original. Even then, you might feel offended by this blatant attempt to recapture something that was an enigma to begin with. For those interested in Broadway, this film does serve as a love letter to that world, and does it well. You feel like whoever made this loves Broadway. It's just too bad they went into the movie business instead.
Silence, Funny Lady! The court finds you guilty of attempted nostalgia.
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