She’s Funny That Way | Review
Funny Ha-ha: Bogdanovich’s Pleasant Return to the Screwball Comedy
The buzz has been rather hushed concerning She’s Funny That Way, the return of 70s auteur man following a thirteen year feature hiatus (his last was the 2001 film The Cat’s Meow). An ode to the classic screwball comedies of yore, where filmmakers like Lubitsch, Hawks, and several others birthed the prized frameworks, Peter Bogdanovich doesn’t manage to successfully contemporize these antics into the frothy delight of famous predecessors. If you can forgive it these blatant and inescapable anachronistic variations however, it’s an often funny, charming, and ultimately entertaining film.
A filmmaker consistently obsessed with a particular Golden Age of Hollywood’s heyday, his latest is no exception, a long gestating project once imagined as a vehicle for John Ritter. Pleasantly entertaining, it’s not so much that Bogdanovich has lost his touch—in many regards the title is comparable to any number of similarly designed Woody Allen films, an auteur also fascinated by vivacious sex workers. But there’s staleness to it, like a pungent book one might pull out of some neglected cranny.
Famous director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) is about to cast his latest play. Working with his wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn), an actress making her showbiz return after taking a hiatus from having children, the situation gets complicated when a call-girl named Izzy (Imogen Poots) shows up to audition and wows the other cast members and the playwright (Will Arnett), who has an immediate attraction to her. Sometime prior, Arnold had a tryst with Izzy and offered her ten thousand dollars if she agreed to stop selling herself and take the opportunity to do more with her life. Also part of the cast is famous actor Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans), who harbors an eternal crush on Delta and happened to see Izzy leave Arnold’s bedroom. Complications are enhanced by the presence of the playwright’s self-consumed girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), a woman who has recently assumed the responsibility of being Izzy’s therapist.
The glaring oddball here is unfortunately Imogen Poots, breathing life into the role once meant for Bogdanovich’s wife, Louise Stratton (yes, younger sister of Dorothy). Poots, a beautiful blonde Brit with a surprising range (and predilection for unpredictable fare) dons a Brooklyn accent and does her best to imbue this hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold variation with some originality, though this doesn’t quite transpire. She’s like a gooey, sticky marshamellow, melting all over the material with sugary abandon. The zany supporting cast is allowed to dance circles around her, with people like Kathryn Hahn and Jennifer Aniston stealing whole swaths of scenes from a number of notable co-stars. If anything this feels like a mixture of Woody Allen’s mid-90s successes, like Bullets Over Broadway (1994) congealed into Mighty Aphrodite (1995).
More broadly drawn male characters seem to be reduced to punchlines, specifically the lead protagonist played by an amiable Owen Wilson and his favored mantra ‘squirrel to the nuts,’ once the original title of the film (originally taken from an old Charles Boyer passage of dialogue, which a cameo from none other than Quentin Tarantino outlines, though hardly with the same effect as his Top Gun hypothesis in Sleep With Me, 1994). One wishes there had been more time to develop Wilson’s character, or at least the pompous tradition he has of offering prostitutes large sums of money to change their lives (even though it is ironically subverted in passing by supporting character Debi Mazar). Rhys Ifans and Will Arnett are both entertaining, while theater star Austin Pendleton provides manic distraction.
Unfortunately, some of its prime screwball sequences suffer from an insurmountable suspension of disbelief, like a comedic showdown in what is taking place in an Italian restaurant, where everyone alights ‘by chance.’ However, those who happen to find his famous 1972 What’s Up Doc?, a criminally overrated gem masquerading as an unpleasant up do of Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) may be surprised, overall, by this sometimes effective bag of mixed nuts.