Review: I Used to Be Funny

I felt roughly a thousand years old while watching I Used to Be Funny, thanks to the Gen Z speak, IG-ready fits, and the soundtrack performed by Phoebe Bridgers, The Beaches, and a bunch of artists I haven’t heard of. (This is not an insult to them and their music; it’s because I’m no longer cool, if I ever was.) Yet while this dramedy centers the experiences of a twentysomething nanny and her teenage charge, it made me feel a lot of other things other than just ancient, thanks to its sadly near-universal experience of the myriad ways women are affected by male violence.

That short description above makes I Used to Be Funny sound like a drag, but it deftly mixes comedy and tragedy due to the wit of director Ally Pankiw’s script and a perfectly dry yet nuanced performance from Rachel Sennott. The presence she brings — alongside the audience’s knowledge of her very funny roles in Bottoms, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and Shiva Baby — is what makes I Used to Be Funny work so well.

Sennott stars as Sam, a depressed stand-up comedian who receives well-deserved praise from her roommates (played by Sabrina Jalees and Caleb Hearon) for the simple act of taking a shower. “I’ve been very horizontal lately,” Sam admits. Though it’s initially unclear why Sam is struggling, flashbacks of Sam’s memories reveal that this isn’t a garden-variety version of the blues, though I Used to Be Funny also kindly and humorously acknowledges the difficulty of times like these. 

Sam used to be a nanny for Brooke (Olga Petsa), a young teen whose mother was dying and whose father, Cameron (Jason Jones), wasn’t really sure how to interact with her. The bond between the two young women was fast and fierce as friendships in your teens and twenties often are, even though Sam was technically getting paid to hang out with her. When Brooke goes missing in the present, Sam has to contend with their relationship and what role she might play in finding her. 

I Used to Be Funny relies on Sennott’s gift for comedy, but it also allows her to excel playing a survivor of trauma. It unfolds nonlinearly, with the shifts in time slowly revealing what happened to her and showcasing the actress’s talent at playing the subtleties of all the emotions Sam is feeling. Meanwhile, as much as Sennott’s droll on- and off-screen persona plays into her work here, The Daily Show vet Jones is playing against type as the middle-aged dude who is dreadfully unfunny and can’t comprehend his employee’s other gig doing stand-up. Petsa is authentic as a teen going through it who finds unexpected comfort in her new companion. 

Writer-director Pankiw has worked on some solid TV series that foreground women’s lives, including Shrill, The Great, and Feel Good, as well as directing music videos for artists like Janelle Monáe and Muna. The latter work feels especially relevant here, with the soundtrack filled with female vocals feeling so central to both individual moments and the movie as a whole. She shoots some scenes in a lyrical way, but she also isn’t afraid of close-ups of the actors that feel raw, urgent, and emotional rather than overly composed. 

This profoundly empathetic dramedy acknowledges the difficulty of a variety of people’s experiences around trauma and the complexities of lives connected to others. It isn’t just the “primary” victim who suffers physically, emotionally, and socially; it’s also those tied to what happened in more tangential ways. It largely avoids cliches in handling what happens to Sam and her response to it, though its final act feels less fresh than the preceding two. Yet even the shots or bits that feel more familiar are still wildly affecting. I Used to be Funny is clear-eyed about the relationship between joy and pain; laughter can be the path through sadness, even when it’s the thing we feel least equipped to do at the time. 

“I Used to Be Funny” is in theaters Friday.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

Back to top