The writer and director Peter Bogdanovich has made three of my favourite films of all time (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, What’s Up, Doc?) but I don’t think I’ll be adding his latest, She’s Funny That Way, to the list. It’s a screwball comedy of the old school and, although it is slightly intriguing at first, where is all this manic activity going? You get your answer after 96 minutes. The answer is: absolutely nowhere.
Set in New York, it stars the British actress Imogen Poots laying on a Brooklyn accent with several trowels and also a spade. (Oh, how one yearns for just the one trowel.) She plays Izzy Patterson, a ‘call girl’ — never ‘prostitute’ in these instances — and straight off I’m in trouble. Cinema is make-believe, I know, but I can never quite get round what I call ‘the Pretty Woman Problem’. That is, when you are as utterly ravishing as Ms Poots (or Julia Roberts), why have sex with strange men for money, at great personal risk, when you could truck up at any top modelling agency in any city and be posing for Burberry at £100,000 per minute, or whatever it is they pay? (No, not keen on those checks either, but for £100,000 per minute, or whatever it is they pay?) But we’ll be obliging and buy that Ms Poots is a ‘call girl’ who, one evening, is summoned to the hotel room of a theatre director Albert, as played by Owen Wilson, who gives the exact same performance as he gave in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which may prove what I have suspected for quite a while now: when you cast Owen Wilson you get …Owen Wilson.
Albert’s wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn), has yet to reach town, so he and Izzy enjoy a great night during which the film establishes its retro chops by referencing Ernst Lubitsch’s 1946 romantic comedy Cluny Brown. ‘Some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels,’ says Albert, quoting the film, ‘but if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?’ Izzy, who is ‘ditzy and also ‘kooky’ in the manner of Goldie Hawn (yawn) finds this adorable and hilarious, although quite why I can’t say. Doesn’t make an ounce of sense to me. She is also bowled over when Albert offers her $30,000 to give up the call-girling and pursue her dreams. Albert, it turns out, has a habit of giving women $30,000 to stop call-girling and pursue their dreams. As Albert appears to direct rubbish plays, you might well ask: where does all this money come from? We’re never told.
Izzy’s dream is to be an actress, so the next day, when he’s holding auditions for his latest play, which will star Delta, who should turn up? Do I even have to say? OK. Izzy turns up to audition, and then it all kicks off manically, as subplots abound, and abound, in a world so small everyone is connected. So, the writer of the play (Will Forte) is dating Izzy’s angry therapist (Jennifer Aniston, who gets the one decentish line: ‘I’m not judgmental, but that’s just stupid.’). Meanwhile, the playwright’s father (George Morfogen) is a private detective trailing Izzy for a judge (Austin Pendleton), who is in love with her. Meanwhile — there’s another ‘meanwhile’? — the other star of the play (Rhys Ifans) has a thing for Delta. Meanwhile — will this never end? — the playwright becomes smitten with Izzy. There are more meanwhiles, probably, but that’s all I can be bothered with right now.
The narrative is built solely on contrivances and coincidences of the kind that, for example, mean they all happen to turn up at the same restaurant on the same evening and all end up on the same floor of what appears to be the only hotel in the whole of New York, and so on. It’s not just that jokes don’t land, or that the physical comedy doesn’t land, as they don’t, but who are we meant to care about here? Or like, even? Every single character is a hateful narcissist and while Aniston’s unsympathetic therapist might have seemed a good idea at the time, on screen she is just viciously nasty. The old-school screwball comedies did have something to say, whether it was about class or gender politics, but this doesn’t have anything to say about anything, and the only manner in which it is truly regressive is in its treatment of women. Aniston is nasty because she’s been jilted in the past. The women rescued by Albert have all gone on to careers in ‘fashion’ rather than, say, engineering. Izzy makes it to Hollywood in the end, but her success is defined by the fact she has a top director for a boyfriend (a surprise cameo, as provided by Quentin Tarantino, so not much of a surprise now). But what, I suppose, you mostly need to know is that in She’s Funny That Way no one is funny in any way at all, or even interesting in any way at all. So, no, I won’t be adding this Bogdanovich to my list of favourite films. Sorry.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10