'She's Funny That Way'
Of all the great American directors of the 1970s, few have suffered a fall from grace as dramatically as Peter Bogdanovich. His latest effort, ‘She’s Funny That Way’, doesn’t do much to suggest that the filmmaker has much left in the tank. To be fair, it has also clearly been reworked endlessly in editing. It’s possible that there was once a wonderful screwball comedy buried in it somewhere.
After kicking off his career with four consecutive works of brilliance in ‘Targets’, ‘The Last Picture Show’, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ and ‘Paper Moon’, Bogdanovich seemed to suck his well dry and deliver one disappointment after the next. He’s made a few intriguing projects since 1973, such as ‘They All Laughed’, ‘Mask’ and ‘The Cat’s Meow’, but for the most part it has felt like Bogdanovich burned through everything he had to contribute as a filmmaker and has been living in a world of wheel-spinning ever since.
‘She’s Funny That Way’ is yet another attempt to revive the classic screwball comedy form, and is also littered with references to great flicks of the past (not to mention the waterfall of cameos). Imogen Poots stars as Isabella, a call girl turned star actress who recounts her tale of discovery to a cynical celebrity journalist (Illeana Douglas). Her fortunes changed when she was hired for the night by theatrical director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson), who likes to book escorts, charm them with lines stolen from classic films, and then pay them huge sums of money to leave their former lives behind and pursue their dreams. It’s a weird way to go through life that could only lead to comedic disaster. (Uh-oh!)
It turns out that Isabella’s dream is to become an actress. Wouldn’t ya know it, the first audition she takes after being able to pursue that passion full time is for Arnold’s new play. To make things even more awkward, she auditions alongside his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and is so good that everyone wants her to take the part, putting Arnold in a tricky spot. To complicate matters further, the play’s troubled star (Rhys Ifans) saw Isabella leave Arnold’s hotel room and is in love with Arnold’s wife. Plus, the play’s writer (Will Forte) falls for Isabella much to the chagrin of his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), who is also Isabella’s therapist. Oh, and Isabella’s parents are played by Richard Lewis and Cybill Shepard, so obviously they’ll add to the shenanigans.
It’s a pretty standard farce setup designed to line up the comedy dominoes to fall through all sorts of misunderstandings, fights and slapstick. That’s the sort of thing Bogdanovich has done well in the past and (likely thanks in no small part to producers Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach), the director hired quite possibly the most talented crop of comedic actors he’s ever had to deliver the goods. Yet, somehow it all falls flat.
It’s hard to say why, but it likely starts with Poots, a talented British actress saddled with a heavy Brooklyn accent so ludicrous that she can barely spit out her dialogue. Beyond that, the pacing is off and it feels like huge chunks of the movie were chopped out in editing. (The interview wraparound feels like a blatant attempt to cover holes, and some of the performers like Lewis and Shepard are so underused that there must be many missing minutes of their work trapped on a hard drive somewhere.)
Obviously, reworking a movie through editing is a pretty standard practice, but it’s not something that suits this brand of screwball comedy well. These sorts of comedies have to be written in such a way that every beat in the first half sets up a payoff in the second half, along with an ever-escalating pace building to an insane climax. Unfortunately, whatever went wrong in the development of ‘She’s Funny That Way’ led to a sputtering, awkward structure that kills the comedy. The film has no sense of building momentum. Scenes and actors simply crash into each other with little flow. By the time we reach the squealing climax where all the actors come together to scream at each other, it never feels like a satisfyingly insane finale. It’s just a bunch of actors performing very loudly and delivering punchlines to running gags that weren’t properly set up. It’s a very messy little movie, which doesn’t suit a comedy genre dependent on screenplays written so tightly that you can bounce nickels off them.
That’s not to say that the movie is without any charm. The cast is quite good and simply putting that much talent on the screen together will yield some laughs. Likewise, while most of Bogdanovich’s film references are so old that even elderly viewers might wonder what the hell he’s quoting half the time, the movie flaunts his movie geek credentials in some amusing ways. (The final cameo featuring one of Peter’s longtime directing buddies is a doozy.)
Even so, the bulk of the movie falls flat and, worst of all, it’s just not that funny. Comedy directors can get away with all sorts of sloppy filmmaking as long as the jokes are good (see ‘Caddyshack’ for more), but when the laughs aren’t there, the movie can only be described as a failure. Sadly, ‘She’s Funny That Way’ is undeniably a failure, but at least a somewhat interesting one for cinematic masochists like myself who feel the need to at least sample every Peter Bogdanovich movie in the hope that someday he’ll be able to recapture his early magic. The wait continues.