After a one night stand with a call girl (Imogen Poots), a famous theater director (Owen Wilson) makes her an enticing offer: $30 thousand to quit turning tricks. The call girl is also an aspiring actress and quickly transforms this opportunity into a potential Broadway career. Unfortunately, the execution of this plan (and the accompanying film) is more miss than hit.
Director Peter Bogdanovich's blandly titled She's Funny That Way is a largely ill-fated attempt to revive the screwball comedy genre.
In many ways, Bogdanovich has made this movie before... in the 70's... and in the 80's... and the 90's. The film is most reminiscent of the director's earlier works such as They All Laughed and Noises Off.... The farcical hotel sequences also evoke memories of What's Up Doc, arguably one of the finest film comedies ever made. Those are very big shoes to fill. As always, inviting comparison to such successful works inevitably results in disappointment. A similar (and far superior) example of this type of movie would be Deconstructing Harry. Woody Allen's underrated film beautifully mixes equally healthy doses of crudely raunchy and dryly intellectual comedy. Bullets Over Broadway also jumps to mind.
She's Funny That Way was written in the late 90's and sat in Bogdanovich's drawer ever since. The passage of time has left the narrative with an anachronistic tone. The plot is long past its best-before date. It feels like a movie that should be watched exclusively on VHS.
The notion of treating prostitution and infidelity with such casual comedic silliness is bold in today's political climate. Everybody is cheating on everybody, just as in those earlier, better films. Indeed, meanness and cruelty can be key ingredients in good comedy. If only they had been employed in a more interesting manner. One could imagine a version of this film in which all of the characters are totally unpleasant. In She's Funny That Way, the characters are not necessarily unlikable. They're merely dull and tiresome.
Wilson seems uninspired by his role, sleepwalking through scenes in which the surrounding players heedlessly explode over the top. Austin Pendleton, Kathryn Hahn and Rhys Ifans commit to their supporting roles with a savage glee, clearly having fun with each passing absurdity. These are brilliant comedic performers, all of whom are tragically misused.
Executing any sort of comedy requires a remarkably precise hand, especially one as antiquated as the screwball. Bogdanovich shoots the film in a flat and almost televisual style, seemingly heeding the old adage that comedies mustn't look beautiful. He should rewatch his own Paper Moon. The majority of the comedic scenes feel stale and rehashed, despite a handful of admittedly solid laughs along the way.
The jokes that do work are excellent. When Bogdanovich and his co-writer Louise Stratten hit the right note, it sounds divine. The stellar performance of Imogen Poots would have proved a star-making turn in a worthier movie. Poots, Jennifer Aniston and Michael Shannon have the film's funniest lines. However, some of those moments are stupidly available in the trailers.
I often think of film comedies like strings of Christmas lights. (Stay with me on this.) When checking the lights, if one bulb isn't working, the entire string fails to light up. A comedy can work in a similar fashion. Unless all of the elements (plot, characters, casting, dialogue, etc.) work, the film will fall apart. Even if some elements are successful, the unsuccessful ones will overpower all else. That is the crippling problem with She's Funny That Way.
Bogdanovich is a masterful filmmaker and I eagerly recommend many of his movies. Last Picture Show, What's Up Doc, Paper Moon, Saint Jack, They All Laughed and The Cat's Meow are wonderful films, some of which are undeniable masterpieces. He's capable of great work in a myriad of genres, comedy included. If you're in the mood for a hilarious Peter Bogdanovich screwball comedy, you'd be better off watching What's Up Doc.
Note: Yes, I mentioned What's Up Doc three times in this review. If that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is. Seriously. Go watch What's Up Doc.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.