More than any filmmaker who came out of the New Hollywood of the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich has frequently genuflected to bygone silver screen traditions. She’s Funny That Way, the director’s first feature since The Cat’s Meow 13 years ago, marks a nostalgic return to the classic screwball comedy and light-hearted romance that he channeled in films from the smash What’s Up, Doc? to the underrated They All Laughed. But as gratifying as it would be to report that the effortless touch, the livewire rhythms and the sparkling wit remain in evidence, those qualities prevail only intermittently in this strained though mildly enjoyable ensemble comedy.
Bogdanovich makes no secret here of his admiration for the elegance and sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch, with a direct citation from the German émigré’s final completed film, 1946’s Cluny Brown. But that nod — about how most people derive pleasure from giving nuts to the squirrels while a select few get joy from feeding squirrels to the nuts — is symptomatic of this film’s problems. What was a charming throwaway in Lubitsch’s hands is hammered to diminishing returns here.
Originally titled Squirrels to the Nuts, the screenplay dates back 15 years. It was written by Bogdanovich with his then-wife Louise Stratten, whose older sister Dorothy had starred in They All Laughed right before her shocking murder.
Like that film, She’s Funny That Way is set in New York, but makes a far less transporting valentine to the city, seldom evincing any discernible feel for the locations. Disappointingly, the flat-looking new film could almost be set anywhere, despite the central plot element of a Broadway play that intersects with and imitates life. The connection to They All Laughed also surfaces in repeat references to Audrey Hepburn, who made her last substantial screen appearance in the 1981 release.
In addition to the uneven writing, much of the key casting is a little off. As the successful film and theater director Arnold Albertson, Owen Wilson recycles the same sleepily bemused shtick he turned on for Woody Allen, whose stale imprint is far more apparent here than that of Lubitsch. And as Isabella “Izzy” Patterson, the Brooklyn call girl who is one of many beneficiaries of Arnold’s “squirrels to the nuts” financial largesse, British actress Imogen Poots struggles to get out from behind the thick accent and create an appealing character.
In secondary roles, both Will Forte and Kathryn Hahn seem wrong for their characters — respectively sensitive playwright and acerbic actress wife. Rhys Ifans scores some funny lines and delivers them with dry aplomb, but he’s going to be few people’s idea of a seductive movie star.
Playing an unprofessional shrink with a blithe disregard for doctor-patient privacy, let alone for keeping her own personal life separate, Jennifer Aniston is back in brittle Horrible Bosses mode. She has delightful moments but too often has to fight against patchy material.
In what plays like a surgical scripting afterthought, the story unfolds within the cumbersome framing device of a one-on-one interview during which Isabella, now one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, shares her story with a jaded entertainment reporter (Illeana Douglas). She recounts how while working for an escort service and dreaming of being discovered like Lana Turner, she met Arnold, who gave her $30,000 to stop turning tricks and pursue her acting career.
Over the course of the film, we see that hooker philanthropy is a serial hobby for Arnold, as gorgeous women keep turning up at inopportune moments to say how his monetary gifts and his belief in them turned their lives around. This is just far too shaky a central premise on which to hang a contemporary comedy, no matter how consciously it tips its hat to a more fanciful era of Hollywood storylines.
Things get complicated when Izzy shows up to audition for a call girl role in the play Arnold is directing, which stars Seth Gilbert (Ifans) alongside Arnold’s wife, Delta (Hahn), for whom the leading man carries a burning a torch. Playwright Joshua Fleet (Forte) is involved with bad-tempered therapist Jane (Aniston), who is treating both Izzy and a respected Judge (Austin Pendleton) so obsessed with the hooker/actress that he hires a private detective (George Morfogen) to tail her. That gumshoe also happens to be Joshua’s dad.
Such a tangle of characters and connections requires both dexterity and a supremely light touch, and particularly in the sluggish opening, those assets are missing. Chopping back and forth between the main story and Isabella’s interview only exacerbates the frustrating failure to build any consistent comic rhythm. The film does pick up, gaining momentum as the various deceptions are exposed. And there are a handful of very amusing scenes, notably one in which an Eastern European escort with minimal English skills (Lucy Punch) gets caught in the confusion. But this is a long, dispiriting distance from the sustained sparks and impeccably timed beats of, say, What’s Up, Doc?
An alumnus of that film’s cast, Pendleton, is one of many friends and associates on hand to lend support to a director whose history has earned him industry respect as well as a rooting interest. Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach are executive producers; their involvement reportedly helped get the film made. Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis play Izzy’s parents; Colleen Camp drops in as Seth’s publicist; Tatum O’Neal, Jennifer Esposito, Graydon Carter, Jake Hoffman and even Michael Shannon make cameos. Joanna Lumley appears to have finished on the cutting room floor aside from a voicemail message and an end credits insert, while a major-name director swings by for a single joke that, like many, fails to land.
Removing expectations based on Bogdanovich’s own cherished career highs will probably allow many audiences to have an OK time here. But She’s Funny That Way just isn’t quite funny or inspired enough.
Production companies: Lagniappe Films, in association with Venture Forth, Threepoint Capital, Lailaps Pictures, Holy Wiersma Productions
Cast: Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Will Forte, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Aniston, Lucy Punch, Joanna Lumley, Cybill Shepherd, Illeana Douglas, Richard Lewis, Austin Pendleton, George Morfogen, Debi Mazar
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Screenwriters: Louise Stratten, Peter Bogdanovich
Producers: Logan Levy, Holly Wiersma, Louise Stratten, George Drakoulias
Executive producers: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Cassian Elwes, Robert Ogden Barnum, Jacob Pechenik, Andy Neuberger, Brice Sanderford, Jeff Rice, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman
Director of photography: Yaron Orbach
Production designer: Jane Musky
Costume designer: Peggy Schnitzer
Music: Edward Shearmur
Editors: Nick Moore, Pax Wasserman
Sales: Red Granite International
No rating, 93 minutes