Friday, May 27, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face (1957) ***
Directed by: Stanley Donen.
Written by: Leonard Gershe.
Starring: Audrey Hepburn (Jo Stockton), Fred Astaire (Dick Avery), Kay Thompson (Maggie Prescott), Michel Auclair (Prof. Emile Flostre), Robert Flemyng (Paul Duval), Dovima (Marion).

I love Fred Astaire. Just like there are Elvis people and Beatles people, or Buster Keaton people and Charlie Chaplin people, there seems to be a divide among lovers of Hollywood musicals. You are either a Fred Astaire person or a Gene Kelly person. Put me down firmly in the Astaire column. Having said that, the 1957 film Funny Face, despite the presence of a dancing Astaire, despite the direction of musical legend Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain among others), and despite the performance by Audrey Hepburn left me a little let down. It’s not that it’s not a fine film – it is – it’s just that despite the presence of these three legends, I think that they have all done much better work in their careers. Funny Face is amusing and fun – but not really memorable.

The story is classic Hollywood musical stuff. Astaire plays Dick Avery, a famed fashion photographer, working for a high end magazine that dictates the style American women wear every day. The magazine wants a fresh, new face for a new campaign they are doing – and they happen to stumble upon humble Jo Stockton (Hepburn) working in a bookstore. She despises fashion, but longs to travel to Paris to study under Professor Emie Flostre, who has come up with a new philosophy Empathism. The opportunity to travel to Paris, all expenses paid, is too much for her to pass up – even if she does have to degrade herself by becoming a model. You get no bonus points for guessing that Astaire and Hepburn fall in love – but that there are complications.

Funny Face is amongst the most colorful musicals I have ever seen. From its opening sequence, where everything is painted pink, right through to the end, Funny Face is a non-stop burst of color. It’s so colorful in fact that at times, it is almost blinding. But you cannot fault the wonderful cinematography, art direction or costume design – all of which helps to create a visually exciting artificial playground for the characters to go in.

You cannot really fault the performances either. Astaire had essentially been playing a version of this role his entire career – yet you never catch him sleepwalking through it. He is fun, funny, charming and playful throughout the movie. And Hepburn has played similar roles as well, but here she seems to be having a blast in her role. While it’s true that Hepburn didn’t have the greatest singing voice, hence why the dubbed her singing in My Fair Lady (1964), she has the chops to the pull off what is asked of her here. Personally, I thought the much praised work by Kay Thompson, playing a kinder, gentler version of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, was a little too far over the top – even by musical standards.

If there is a failing to this movie, sadly, I think it’s the music. To be perfectly honest with you, even though it’s only been a few days since I’ve seen the movie, I really cannot recall any of the songs in the movie. Yes, they are written by George and Ira Gershwin, but can any of them even compare to their best work – songs like Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away From Me or Someone to Watch Over Me? I don’t think that any of the songs in Funny Face even come close.

There are two wonderful musical sequences in the film though. Both are dance numbers. One featuring Fred Astaire dancing in a deserted square for Hepburn who watches from her balcony. It is a lovely scene, and shows that even though Astaire was aging at this point (he was 58), he could still move. No, it doesn’t compare to the great work he did in the 1930s – or even just a few years before in The Band Wagon (1953), but it wonderful just the same. The one truly brilliant segment in the movie surprising involves Hepburn – and its her now infamous Bohemian routine in the coffee shop, which somehow manages to mock the pretentiousness of the routine, while still being a wonderful one. Hepburn plays this to the hilt, and it is truly an unforgettable movie moment.

But it also highlights what is missing from the rest of Funny Face – truly memorable moments. I enjoyed Funny Face quite a bit as I watched it. Over the past few years, I think have truly gotten over my previous aversion to movie musicals, and can now fully embrace them for the artificial fun they were meant to be. Yet, even by those standards, Funny Face felt a little too by the numbers for me to truly love. The great musicals are no less clichéd than Funny Face, but they don’t feel as clichéd – or at least they get past that by having numerous great musical numbers. This one doesn’t offer that. Instead, Funny Face is, to me anyway, simply a fun, enjoyable musical – a good way to kill a couple of hours. There are worse things that it could be – but there are also better things.

1 comment:

  1. Romance between Fred and Audrey is hard to believe. Subplot involving philosophy prof is laboured. But this film looks great, especially scenes shot outside church. I found Kay Thompson to be a delight.