Certain things are absolutely timeless, and then there are others that just do not translate. I was studying abroad in Paris when my mother sent me a box set of Audrey Hepburn films. Learning "Funny Face" took place predominately in my host-city, I popped it in. I am willing to make the occasional logic leap and accept some fluff, and I do understand "Funny Face" wasn't attempting to sweep the Oscars, but there is a limit. And while there are some fabulous scenes, overall, I was disappointed.
"Funny Face," in brief, begins with the owner of "Quality" magazine, Maggie Prescott, and her photographer, Dick Avery, trying to find a new face to shake the fashion world. It is found in the young Jo Stockton, an educated, introverted, and supposedly homely girl working in a bookstore. She dreams of going to Paris to meet Professor Flostre, the founder of the philosophy she studies, "Empathicalism." Though at first reluctant, Jo agrees to model for "Quality"'s photo shoot and fashion show, as both events are in Paris. Sparks fly between Jo and Dick, but jealousy reigns for the latter when Jo meets her professor and the man has more than talking philosophy on his mind. Hijinks, song, and dance ensue.
As to my criticisms:
My first issue came from the extraordinarily obvious age disparity between Miss Hepburn (playing bookshop employee-turned-cover girl Jo Stockton) and Fred Astaire (playing photographer Dick Avery). Both are great actors and it isn't the first time the former was paired with an older leading man, but this is a thirty year age gap and it shows. I might have been more willing to go with it if at some point the age difference had been addressed, but it's conspicuously left off like the audience won't notice if no one mentions it. In fact, I almost found it creepy to see Fred Astaire plant one on Audrey in one of the opening scenes. Their chemistry often seemed forced, and quite honestly, I thought Astaire and Kay Thompson (playing Maggie Prescott, and nearer his contemporary) had far more spark between them.
The makers of this film again gave little credit to their audience by presenting the notion that putting Hepburn in a bizarre over-sized wool vest and shapeless shift made her dowdy and unattractive. And was it really necessary to play on the cliché that a girl who enjoys to read and demonstrates the general ability to think must be a sexually unattractive virginal frump? Admittedly, I live in a different generation, but the film bothered me by hammering in the idea that a truly happy woman gives up her books and devotes herself to buying designer ensembles and picking up her husband's laundry. I am continually floored when older films make comedic references to spousal abuse, and was so here, when Dick Avery is searching for Jo in the streets of Montmartre and passes an arguing French couple, the male of which solves the dispute by smacking his girl across the face--she responds by lovingly falling into his arms. I was particularly galled by Astaire's line concerning Jo's sex-crazed professor- idol, Flostre (Michel Auclair), "He's about as interested in your intellect as I am!" No, silly, a man doesn't want you to think--just stand there and look pretty like a china doll. This is what made no sense to me--they spend the beginning of the film struggling to find a fresh face with some substance behind it, only to transform it into the stereotypical vapid pretty girl who can only achieve real fulfillment if some man deigns to make her a wife.
The strange subplot mocking beatniks led to some confusion. I am not an authority on the subject, but last time I checked, the beat generation was primarily focused in the United States and did not exactly sweep young Parisian intellectuals. It almost seemed placed there just so the filmmakers could have a go at making it look ridiculous and give Thompson and Astaire the chance for their energetic song and dance routine. The very fact that "Funny Face" is a musical was odd--the leading pair, while not tone-deaf, are not singers. And why when Dick serenades Jo outside her hotel (exactly why, if they're all on the photo shoot, do they all seem to be booked in separate hotels?), does he act like a matador? Spain and its bullfights are NEAR France; they are not IN it. And during his matador number, why in the world does a cow come through?? Paris, even in 1957, was a very metropolitan capital--live barnyard animals in the streets are a relatively rare occurrence.
Absolutely hysterical was the number "Bonjour, Paris!" in which Maggie, Dick, and Jo, bright- eyed and ready to go even after at least eight hours on a plane, wildly dance through the city streets, magically jumping between the spread-out landmarks, and proudly proclaiming themselves as American tourists. Their dance in the elevator on the Eiffel Tower was particularly amusing--I'm not sure what the crowds were like back in the 1950's, but nowadays those things pack you in like sardines--you're lucky if you can MOVE your foot, let alone do a couple pirouettes.
All that said, I will acknowledge the costumes (particular those by Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn) and shots of Paris are beyond fabulous--the best part of the film is Hepburn's photo shoots, interspersing her ensembles in the Louvre, Opéra, and other major sites in the city. The dance sequence with Thompson and Astaire is great--Hepburn's famous (and lately popularized by the Gap) "Basil Metabolism" dance is...unique. Amongst all that was bizarre, it does have a few moments of charm. To the potential viewer--do not watch this expecting any sort of cinematic masterpiece and know that not all t he jokes have carried over well across the half-century since it was released.
It's certainly an attention-grabber, if nothing else.
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