Between the old-timey music, egregious colour grading and the congregation of well-known talent filling even the minor supporting roles, the spectator behind me who loudly asked another patron “is this directed by Woody Allen?” halfway through Peter Bogdanovich’s latest may have shown a disregard for basic cinema-going decorum, but not necessarily a complete lack of film literacy. But this resemblance with Woody isn’t constrained to form either – a reworking of the age-old A Star Was Born flashback narrative with a eternally optimistic, naive young starlet seems like Allen territory, to say nothing of its retro-sounding title. But She’s Funny That Way is also distinctly Bogdanovich, his first feature narrative film in fourteen years and another rehashing of classic screwball comedy formula. Strong performances lead to wonderful scenes of zaniness toward the middle, but eventually fizzles out. As with any throwback film of this ilk, individual mileage will vary, perhaps to the extent to which you enjoy the age-old trope of miscommunications leading to hiding people in bathrooms or the ‘charms’ of Rhys Ifans.
The film starts with an interview with Isabella Patterson (Imogen Poots), a young successful actress, whose relentless positivity and belief in luck and magic interrogated by her cynical journalist (Illeana Douglas). Asked how she got her ‘big break’, the majority of the film is a flashback recount of the very complicated, farcical network of characters involved in her first big play. Director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) is staging a play with his wife (the absolutely ubiquitous Kathryn Hahn), but staying out of town in a hotel. As per his routine, he hires a call girl, treats them to a night of romance and leaves them with a proposition – he’ll give them $30,000, no strains attached, if they leave the profession and start on another career. The call girl in question, of course, is the same Patterson, working as “Glow Stick”. Accepting the proposition, the struggling actor Glow turns up for an audition, which of course is directed by Arnold, where she happens to audition for the part of a call girl. Thrown in the mix is playwright Joshua (Will Forte), lead actor Seth (Rhys Ifans) and therapist to multiple characters Jane (Jennifer Aniston).
The plot gets increasingly difficult to follow, as do the connections between characters, leading to an amusing later scene where everyone is in once location and they try to work out just who knows who. Classic screwball tropes are peppered throughout as well, with constant miscommunication and His Girl Friday type rapid-fire delivery. Timing is generally impressive (a great early scene with Owen Wilson juggling conversations over the phone is a knowingly updated turn on decades old gags). The actors themselves for the most part fit as well – Wilson’s calm “relax, man” demeanour threatened by the multiple characters he manages to upset, though the standout performer is probably Jennifer Aniston, in the vein of her Horrible Bosses turn rather than her more famous gig, as the stressed, incompetent therapist who manages to invade just about everyone else’s life. Not all characters work – Will Forte never really gets comfortable with his comparitively thankless straight man role, but when they do click, it’s fireworks. A particularly genius moment happens with Imogen Poot’s character auditions for the dramatic role of the call girl. Until then, we’d seen Glow as an impossibly upbeat, optimistic character, continually talking about her work in euphemisms and seemingly unfazed by it. But when her script calls for a particularly heartfelt, emotional monologue at the work she’s done, she nails it so convincingly that we see her real-life pain that had been hidden used as ammunition. There’s an irony that the only real moment of emotional truth in the film comes through the fictional play, but it’s this sort of territory that the film doesn’t get close to again.
Ultimately, the film becomes exhausting and repetitive as the screwball miscommunications are squeezed to diminishing returns, and some of the narrative ends up looking weak. The intriguing set-up of Wilson’s character giving call girls this money ultimately feels pointless 1– the romantic comedy set-up comes from the fact that Wilson is forced to cast a woman he slept with playing across from his wife, and this is what drives the narrative, that would have worked without the subplot of the sums of money. Combined with an increasing marginalization of Wilson’s character, the promise of the set-up feels lost amongst the antics, which contributes to my waning enjoyment of the film over the last hour, hammered home by an idiotic ending. Produced by Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, the fact that this was made possible by the support of Bogdanovich fans in the industry is continually made apparent, with many lending their names to keep letting him make films, perhaps most notably with Michael Shannon’s strange cameo. Without ruining the surprise, the senseless reveal (involving a well-known Bogdanovich devotee) turns this whole enterprise of the Bogdanovich cult into a weird joke, which for this viewer already on the fence about this film feels just a little bit insulting.