Peter Bogdanovich, like many of the directors to come out of the New Hollywood wave of the late-60s and early 70s, tends to look back at films that they have watched growing up. The exposure that these directors have had to films spanning the medium’s history and multiple cultures informed their style and sensibilities in ways that hasn’t affected the authorial prominence in the standard studio system since. Bogdanovich’s influences can be found in the many forms of classic Hollywood pictures. This has continued throughout his career and even with his latest, She’s Funny That Way, which is the first film he’s directed since the 2001 feature, The Cat’s Meow.
Isabella Beatty (Imogen Poots) is an escort in New York with ambitions of being an actress. She ends up getting successfully cast in a Broadway production that happens to be directed by a former client, Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson), who is already dating the star, Delta Simmons (Kathryn Hahn). However, things quickly turn wild when the playwright, Joshua Fleet (Will Forte), falls for her while still being in a relationship with a therapist, Jane Claremont (Jennifer Aniston). That combined with the big celebrity, Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans), playing opposite to Delta, a person he’s had feelings towards for years, adds fuel to the ever growing fire in the production.
She’s Funny That Way was a long time coming. Bogdanovich meant for the film to be released in the very early 2000s with an original script designed for John Ritter playing the show’s director, Arnold. However, following Ritter’s untimely death in 2003, Bogdanovich shelved the project. It wasn’t until Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach were able to offer their support and serve as executive producers that the film was able to get on its feet again in 2010. It’s unfortunate, however, that the resulting film is painfully mediocre.
The film clearly takes a lot of cues from old screwball comedies in the vein of His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, Cluny Brown, etc. The problem is that the film doesn’t have that energy and increasing sense of craziness. It establishes a note and it stays on that one note for the entire film up until the underwhelming finale. The lack of any big laughs makes the one-note energy readily apparent. So, what you end up with is a film so enamored with nostalgic for a style of comedy that it doesn’t do a particularly good job at emulating. There are set-ups being made left and right with a ludicrously convoluted web of relationships, but the payoffs are weak and not as interesting and funny as it should’ve been. It also has the problem that plagues some of Woody Allen’s recent films where it feels like it was based on a screenplay that was gathering dust on the shelf. In this case, there is some truth to that, as it feels like an early draft of something that could have been much better.
That’s not to say it’s irredeemable. It’s mostly due to the performances, which are solid. Everyone clearly gets what the film is going for and they are on point even if the material itself isn’t particularly good. Imogen Poots once again does a good performance in a not-so-good movie, which is something I hope she moves past soon. She carries the film effortlessly, and she works with the cast very well. Rhys Ifans and Kathryn Hahn probably got the most chuckles out of me during the film. Will Forte had the least to do out of anyone, which is too bad because this style of film would’ve really worked for him. Another good thing about the film, and I don’t mean for this to come off as cruel, is the short length. It’s a light and breezy watch, which is much more than I can say about other bad comedies I’ve seen this year.
She’s Funny That Way is not a terrible film by any means, but it feels like watching a ghost of a movie. It feels too lost in an old style and doesn’t come across as lively and energetic as it should be. Considering this is from the director of What’s Up, Doc? it is very disappointing. It’s a perfectly watchable film with just enough charm to last its fairly short runtime and performances that keep you relatively engaged, but the laughs, the wit and energy just isn’t there. Since it’s not very funny, it makes the nonsensical plot stand out, and completely fall apart under its own weight. It’s a shame given the talent involved and the level of craftsmanship Bogdanovich has given us in the past. It’s not for the lack of trying, as there’s clearly an effort being made, but it ultimately never pans out to its fullest potential.