One of the more anticipated entries at this year’s SXSW Film Festival was I Used to Be Funny, the newest Rachel Sennott vehicle that I assumed would be a dramedy/mystery mixture. I loved Rachel in Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, where her awkward humor blended perfectly into her ditzy, self-obsessed character’s personality. Hoping for more range from Sennott, one would expect writer/director Ally Pankiw to usher in the newest evolution for the up-and-coming actress. Unfortunately, I Used to Be Funny has neither the dramatic theft nor the actual comedic chops to deliver a worthy festival offering.
Sam (Sennott), a budding stand-up comedienne whose bread and butter is performing her sets at The Laugh Basket, is suddenly pulled into a newscast that she hears while munching on chips in her bathtub. A 14-year-old girl has been missing for four days—Sam was the last to see her alive. I Used to Be Funny has been split between aggressively divergent periods of time. In the first, modern-Sam struggles from the after-effects of a traumatic event and grapples with her PTSD, anxious to get back on stage while struggling with her thoughts about Brooke’s disappearance. Past-Sam is just beginning her tenure as the new family au pair, staying in a spare room with the primary objective of helping 12-year-old skater Brooke (Olga Petsa) emerge from her withdrawn shell.
I Used to Be Funny struggles with maintaining any sort of forward momentum when its timelines are so haphazardly split. In many scenarios, it became jarring to recall which segment of Sam’s life we are supposed to be observing. Earlier scenes between Sam and Brooke have their charms: Sam suggests watching Riverdale together, and engages in heated conversations regarding Twilight’s Team Jacob versus Team Edward. Sam is there for Brooke in more ways than one, supportive as she attends academy and willing to take Brooke to see her sickly mother.
The comedy-club aspect of the film is perhaps its least-successful element. There is talk of Sam bringing her “girl boss energy” to the stage, but I didn’t laugh a single time during any of her sets. The majority of her humor is about men and how much they suck. Sam obsessively reads her own comments from Instagram users and Twitter trolls alike, as they lash out stating (what else) that she hates men. If only Sam’s comedy-friends were as interesting as her friendship with Brooke, I Used to Be Funny would perhaps actually be… funny?
Alas, neither element emerges particularly worthwhile. A final act that lacks the writing prowess for successful arguments laughably dwells in the whole “what the hell are kids doing these days,” and not much else. Rachel Sennott is certainly talented, though maybe after I Used to Be Funny, I will approach her future projects with a measured sense of caution. Ally Pankiw has her heart firmly in the right place—next time around, one hopes the rest of the project will be as fiery as her storytelling passion.
I Used to Be Funny screened at 2023’s SXSW Film & TV Festival.