She’s Funny That Way

Who, me? Owen Wilson stars in this ode to Hollywood screwball comedy from Peter Bogdanovich

She’s Funny That Way

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Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich.
Starring: Imogen Poots, Jennifer Aniston, Will Forte, Lucy Punch, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Rhys Ifans, Joanna Lumley, Tatum O’Neal, Brie Larson, Jason Schwartzman, Cybill Shepherd, Eugene Levy, Jake Hoffman, Ahna O’Reilly, Angela Jeanneau, Jennifer Esposito, Debi Mazar, Quentin Tarantino, Austin Pendleton, Michael Shannon.
Written by: Peter Bogdanovich, Louise Stratten.

Director Peter Bogdanovich’s first (theatrical) film since The Cat’s Meow bowed 14 years ago, She’s Funny That Way is fast and loose and a whole lotta fun. Part Woody Allen, part Cluny Brown, it’s the kind of good-natured comedy they just don’t make any more.

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The film is Bogdanovich’s love letter to classic Hollywood screwball comedies, a genre the director has previous experience with: his Barbra Streisand-starring What’s Up, Doc? was a genuine hit, though subsequent features like They All Laughed and Noises Off… were less successful.

Still, these kind of things were already passé when Bogdanovich made his ode to classic Hollywood comedies in the mid-70s, the Burt Reynolds duds At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon; that 1-2 punch just about killed his career, and outside of 1985’s Mask, the director hasn’t had a hit since.

But for those of us with similar sensibilities and Hollywood nostalgia, these films are a delight: we might only get one Bogdanovich film a decade, but She’s Funny That Way is a genteel and genuinely funny low-key comedy that represents a nice reprieve from the usual pictures that crowd the multiplex.

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She’s Funny That Way opens with the titular She, Hollywood starlet Isabella Beatty (Imogen Poots), telling her life story to a no-nonsense Hedda Hopper-like gossip columnist (Illeana Douglas), who, opening title scrawl informs us, doesn’t believe in old-fashioned Hollywood magic. English actress Poots’ thick Brooklyn twang is a distraction at first, but soon we get used to it. 

Indeed, that magic does seem a little out of place in contemporary New York City (a Friends-like NYC, mind you, that is exclusively middle-upper class and white). Isabella (“Izzy”) is a prostitute-slash-actress who is called into action twice by theater director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson): first as a call girl who he gives $30 grand to if she’ll give up turning tricks, and then as a potential actress in his new play in the role of… a call girl.

Izzy is perfect for the part, of course, but Arnold doesn’t want to cast her for fear of his secrets coming out; still, writer Joshua Fleet (Will Forte), and stars Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans) and Delta Simmons (Kathryn Hahn) – who happens to be Arnold’s wife – are pushing for Izzy to get the part.

Once the plot kicks into gear, it doesn’t let up for a second; featured in a variety of storylines are Izzy’s parents (Richard Lewis and Cybil Shepherd), obsessed former client Judge Pendergast (Austin Pendleton) and the detective (George Morfogen) he’s hired to follow Izzy, and a befuddled psychiatrist (Jennifer Aniston) trying to make sense of it all.

The entire cast is a riot, but Aniston steals the show as the don’t-mess-with-me shrink who rattles off rant-ending lines like “I’m going to change my tampon” with a disarmingly funny sincerity. Bogdanovich standby Morfogen, best known for his role on HBO’s OZ, is also a hoot as the old-school (emphasis on old) detective.

Michael Shannon appears in a single scene as a security guard, but both of his lines are rat-a-tat gems. Other cameos include Lucy Punch as a Russian prostitute, Joanna Lumley as the mother of Aniston’s character, and Tatum O’Neal, who Bogdanovich originally conceived the film for in the 90s (he directed Ryan’s daughter to an Oscar in 1973’s Paper Moon).

There’s another cameo at the very end that leaves us on a rather sour note; not because of the actor, but because the director oddly chooses to leave us with a kind of contemporary meta-realism rather than the old-school movie magic he has built the rest of his film around.

She’s Funny That Way was written by director Bogdanovich and former wife Louise Stratten, the sister of murdered actress Dorothy Stratten (who Bogdanovich was dating at the time of her death) and possible inspiration for the lead character here.

The film’s original title, “Squirrels to Nuts”, is a line from Ernst Lubitsch’s classic 1946 comedy Cluny Brown, which is generously sampled by Owen Wilsons’s character here.

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