The Funeral (Abel Ferrara)

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

In my review of The Cable Guy earlier this year, I remarked that I'm a fan of Jim Carrey in spite of the fact that I've been less than enthusiastic about the movies in which he's appeared to date. My take on director Abel Ferrara is similar, if more perverse (since he, in conjunction with his regular screenwriter Nicholas St. John -- and as opposed to Carrey and most other actors -- is the primary aesthetic force driving the films on which he works): I respect and admire him as a filmmaker, but his films -- King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, and The Addiction are the others I've seen so far -- interest me only sporadically. When they're good, they're very, very good; when they're over, however, I invariably find myself shaking my head, unsatisfied. The Funeral, his latest, is no exception, alternating as it does between penetrating brilliance and pretentious hokum. A solemn, philosophical gangster picture set in the 1930s, it features, in common with his other films, several scenes that startle and amaze and linger in the memory -- I'm thinking in particular of the remarkable moral quagmire of a confrontation between Christopher Walken's Ray Tempio and the person who killed his younger brother Johnny (Vincent Gallo), which is one of the year's dramatic highlights -- but these moments, gripping and powerful though they are, can't quite compensate for the incoherent, unconvincing narrative, nor for the frequent dead spots. I'd rather watch a film with too many ideas than one with too few, of course, but that doesn't make the former variety any less frustrating; Ferrara and St. John load The Funeral with so many issues and themes -- from those traditional to the genre (loyalty; revenge; family) to those more common in European art films (the existence of God; sexual dysfunction; labor vs. management) -- that most of them end up being explored in only the most cursory and obligatory way. And while it's nice to see a gangster film that doesn't completely ignore and/or debase the female gender, I'm not sure it's much of an improvement to have Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini walk around saying the film's subtext out loud ("They're criminals, and there's absolutely nothing glamorous about it"). Events build to an explosive climax that's as ludicrous and overblown as it is inevitable, though your own reaction may depend upon how impressed you are by Chris Penn's performance as Chez, the third Tempio brother; I dissent from the general opinion that it's among the year's finest (it basically consists of the same less-than-subtle slow burn he evinced in Short Cuts), and my lack of enthusiasm undoubtedly colors my own response. Once again, I find myself eagerly anticipating Ferrara's next film, confident that this time he'll pull off that delicate balance of intellectual posturing and genre hijinks. Which is exactly how I felt at this time last year, after seeing The Addiction. Hope springs eternal.