Published Aug 13, 2015In a sense, Peter Bogdanovich's self-aware, throwback screwball comedy, She's Funny That Way, is the sort of dialogue- and character-driven comedy of compounding coincidences that his last film, The Cat's Meow, desperately tried to be. It succeeds admirably where its predecessor fared only adequately, reiterating the film theorist's romantic entanglement with old Hollywood while injecting his dysfunctional cast of damaged dreamers and artists into a pseudo-modernist Broadway context.
The story is framed self-consciously, with high(er) class call girl turned Hollywood ingénue Izzy Patterson (Imogen Poots) detailing a somewhat idealized and sanitized version of her rise to success to a sceptical reporter (Illeana Douglas). In addition to explaining the heightened reality of the situations unfolding, it comments on the inherent cynicism of modernist realism, denoting what exactly it is that Bogdanovich misses about the frenzied, fast-talking character pieces of decades passed.
In truth, She's Funny That Way is actually a very seedy story. Izzy is hired by Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson), a famous director and married father of two, for a night of sex. During said night, he partakes in a ritual of wining and dining her, ultimately offering her 30,000 dollars if she'll quit prostitution and pursue her dream of acting. Meanwhile, she's bedding a neurotic Judge (Austin Pendleton) whose psychiatrist, Jane Claremont (Jennifer Aniston), is also treating Izzy. Furthering the agenda of unlikely coincidences, Jane's boyfriend, Joshua (Will Forte), happens to be the writer of the play that Arnold is directing. And when Izzy comes in to audition, he develops a crush on her.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of intertwined character complexities. And while such a template could easily implode by sheer merit of being too forced or twee, Bogdanovich captures the tone impeccably for the most part, allowing these fully realized, neurotic characters to drive the story through simultaneous hedonistic indulgences supplanted by guilt and shame. It's also quite fascinating that virtually all of the characters — save the hilariously untactful Jane — are morally abject, even if apologetically, but are still moderately likeable and engaging. This is due to the level of detail and intricacy each actor is afforded with their character: they may be cheaters, narcissists and liars, but they're also caring, passionate and often quite generous.
Though some of the peripheral zaniness is a tad strained (the judge storyline never works and Rhys Ifans' flakey actor archetype never really fits in entirely), the witty banter, top-notch performances (Poots, Aniston, Wilson and Kathryn Hahn are all standout) propel this consistently laugh-out-loud comedy forward. There's a palpable energy and whimsy in the background, foreground and margins of every scene that enables the escapist sensibilities that Bogdanovich intended.
At a time when most escapist fare is computer-enhanced and features idealized fantasy projections of the human ego — superhero projections that evade and suppress human nuance in favour of simplified supremacy — it's reassuring to see a film that generates excitement with clever plotting and acutely observed human idiosyncrasy. In many ways, She's Funny That Way is the cinephile's escape from the onslaught of particularly banal escapist fare comprising the current cultural moment.