Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Aniston
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His first directorial effort not for television or the documentary format in over a decade, She’s Funny That Way sees legendary American filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich return to one of his recurring interests: resurrecting an old mode of Hollywood cinema for the contemporary film climate.
Here, his concern is with the screwball comedy, which he’s notably taken on before with 1972’s What’s Up, Doc?, an often hilarious, wacky farce, starring Barba Streisand, Ryan O’Neal and Madeline Kahn. Bogdanovich’s arguable contemporary Woody Allen has also resurrected the genre in a number of his own films over the years. That last point is worth stating, as the end result of She’s Funny That Way is sadly closer in quality and feel to the weakest of Allen’s late period comedies than the highs of Bogdanovich’s own, earlier effort.
She’s Funny That Way opens on movie star Isabel Patterson (Poots, with a Brooklyn accent that feels straight out of a Saturday Night Live sketch), speaking to an unnamed interviewer (Illeana Douglas). Before getting into high-profile acting, Isabel suggests she was a “muse” to various men, and much of the rest of the film is told in flashback.
These suggest Izzy (as she was then known) was, in fact, a call girl, while pursuing various theatre auditions. One night, she’s called to the hotel room of (unbeknownst to her) a prominent theatre director, Arnold Patterson (Wilson). The married man takes Izzy out to dinner prior to the whole love-making business, and makes her an impulsive financial offer to quit the prostitution business and pursue her dreams. Actually, it may be best to describe the gesture as compulsive, rather than impulsive, as it’s quickly revealed Patterson is a serial donator of dream-building dough to many women he takes a shine to, the process also involving the same quip that comes back to bite him later: “Some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels. But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?”
Izzy soon ends up auditioning for a Broadway play that Arnold is directing. He’s naturally desperate not to hire her, but her audition impresses everyone else present – writer Joshua (Will Forte), leading man Seth (Ifans), and leading lady and Patterson’s wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn) – too much for that to happen. Joshua takes a shine to her, to the chagrin of his psychotherapist girlfriend, Jane (Aniston), who ends up seeing Izzy as a client. Meanwhile, one of Izzy’s own former infatuated clients, Judge Prendergast (Austin Pendleton), hires a private detective (George Morfogen) to track down her down. Also going on is Delta having a thing for Seth, whom she has a romantic past of sorts with, and Seth happening to see Arnold and Izzy on their escort date.
The story is a tangled web of conveniences and contrivances, and that’s just in the set-up of the first act. The problem is that it lacks the elegance, wit and charm that actually made the screwball genre’s best films flourish. The talented cast, particularly Hahn, valiantly attempt to make something of the low-stakes blunders and misunderstandings, but there are almost no actual gems of comedy in this screenplay, as written by Bogdanovich and his ex-wife, Louise Stratten, which leaves much of the film coming across like a shrill screaming match, rather than escalating laugh riot.
The whole “squirrels to the nuts” thing is a direct lift from Cluny Brown (1946), the penultimate film of Ernst Lubitsch, one of the genre’s master directors, and Bogdanovich’s end credits pay tribute to it by showing the scene in question. This clip, and a cameo from a certain famous director, emphasises what’s wrong with She’s Funny That Way: unless you’re actually doing something interesting while having your foot stuck in the past, your imitation’s going to feel shallow.