Hollywood’s golden era may be long past but that hasn’t stopped countless attempts to replicate it. Peter Bogdanovich, himself a key figure in a Hollywood revival movement, is the latest to try with She’s Funny That Way, a star-studded comedy made from the leftover memories of Ernst Lubitsch, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. With plenty of laughs to go around, its failure to match the screwball heyday is at least softened by the amount of fun on offer.
The opening titles make clear that fiction, at least if it’s entertaining, is always preferable to fact. Bogdanovich and co-writer Louise Stratten certainly do their best to live by that credo. Take a moment to ready yourself for the plot because it gets convoluted very quickly. A Brooklyn escort (Imogen Poots) is hired by a theatre director (Owen Wilson) who unwittingly sets her up to audition for his play. The star actor (Rhys Ifans), who is in love with the director’s wife (Kathryn Hahn), witnesses this liaison, the playwright (Will Forte) falls for the escort leaving his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) who happens to be the therapist of the escort and an elderly judge (Austin Pendleton) who’s obsessed with her and has hired a PI (George Morfogen), who also happens to be the playwright’s father, to keep track of her. Get all that?
In an effort to bring some semblance of order, it’s framed through an interview with Poots’ now famous actress as she recounts the story of her first break. Knowing nods are made to the unlikely veracity of the tale. The cynical journalist opens by dismissing the false story surrounding Lana Turner’s discovery, and subsequent events in the film are treated to the same scepticism only to be swiftly brushed aside if the truth ruins the fun.
With such an intertwined plot, there’s ample opportunity for set-piece farce. An evening meal that sees several couples inadvertently converging on the same restaurant, and the classic illicit person hidden in the bathroom are employed to good comic effect while the dialogue remains smart throughout. With this many characters in play though, it’s a bit like trying to keep an ever increasing number of plates spinning. It’s impressive for a while but eventually they start to crash down.
The ensemble cast causes wider problems. Running to a brisk 93 minutes, there simply isn’t enough airtime for all. This opens up space for the wacky supporting characters at the expense of the leads. Ifans’ seedy actor and Aniston’s hilariously indiscreet therapist do sterling work but the real comic gold comes from Pendleton and Morfogen. By contrast, Poots and Wilson are left to trek between disasters, standing in the middle as the maelstrom rages all around.
She’s Funny That Way is a brave but ultimately futile attempt to hark back to a time that no longer exists, right down to the honeyed glow that lights every scene. Still, it may not be funny in that way, but it is still funny. That’ll do.
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writers: Peter Bogdanovich (screenplay), Louise Stratten (screenplay)
Stars: Imogen Poots, Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson