‘She’s Funny That Way’
Peter Bogdanovich
Stars: Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

In the last 14 years, Peter Bogdanovich has done television and a lengthy Tom Petty documentary, in addition to occasional acting work and his regular role as an ascot-ed chronicler of Hollywood past. But it’s been since 2001, with “The Cat’s Meow,” that he’s done a straight-up fiction feature — the type with which he made his name. And he hasn’t done full-on comedy in even longer, since “Noises Off” in 1992.

Understandably, the new “She’s Funny That Way” finds him a little rusty. It doesn’t have the loopy one-liners of “What’s Up, Doc?” or even stand-out exchanges, like the hilariously simple tutorial on how to be a director in his underrated silent film-era saga “Nickelodeon.” He doesn’t appear to have the time to set up the precise images that run through “The Last Picture Show” or “Paper Moon.” There’s a get-’er-done quality to the shots, as though he didn’t have the resources, which — being an older, out-of-practice filmmaker making a screwball in 2015 — he probably didn’t.

What “She’s Funny That Way” does have is a cumulative funniness — a constant thrum of good vibes that, more often than not, steamrolls over the sometimes so-so-ness of the material. It’s an old school ensemble farce, filled with misassumptions and coincidences and a couple handful of famous faces. A couple of them struggle to work an outmoded form of acting — few things are harder for the modern, realistic actor to imitate than the heavily stylized screwball performance style — but most slip in comfortably. It’s retro in a way that feels both arch and honest, though also unstuck in time and space. It’s the kind of movie that has a character don bad disguises, including a silly mustache and at one point Hassidic gear — a running gag at once stupid and endearingly stupid.

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At the center of the madness is Izzy, played by Imogen Poots in a broad Brooklyn accent that settles on the nerves quicker than it should. She’s a young prostitute — a profession that feels simultaneously too risque for the era of cinema being fetishized and old-hat. Naturally into old movies — she opens the film telling the apocryphal story of how Lana Turner was discovered — she sleeps with a theater director, Arnold (Owen Wilson), then finds herself the next day auditioning for his latest play. Arnold then has to keep his secret hidden from his wife (Kathryn Hahn), while his lead actor (Will Forte) also falls for her and has to keep his own feelings hidden from his high-strung psych girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston). 

There are slamming doors and stammering, off-the-cuff excuses, and people piling into rooms and hiding in bathrooms. At its madcap zenith characters say things like, “And WHO is this?” Individual bits aren’t always in themselves gut-busting, but the overall feeling is a solid wave of amusement — funny even when it’s not funny. It shouldn’t work, but it often does. Perhaps it should even be deeper. A movie about an all-star cast scampering about real New York City locations (though often hotels and occasionally department stores), it calls to mind Bogdanovich’s also underrated “They All Laughed.” (He has many underrated films, especially from his late ’70s, early ’80s period.) That film was a farce with a deep well of melancholy, and not just because it contains Audrey Hepburn’s last major role.

“She’s Funny That Way” is more or less all surface, which is fine, given how busy everything is. (In addition to the main cast, Bogdanovich squeezes in Austin Pendleton, Richard Lewis, Lucy Punch, his “Paper Moon” Oscar winner Tatum O’Neal and even old flame Cybill Shepherd.) The closest it comes to something deeper is with Hahn’s Delta, who initially flips at Izzy’s performance only to discover she’s banged her husband. Is Bogdanovich nodding to how he left his wife and collaborator, Polly Platt, for Shepherd circa “The Last Picture Show”? Perhaps, but even if its an unconscious inclusion he gives Delta real, righteous fury as she unravels. She’s the only character who’s more than a spastic pawn for Bogdanovich to move about, which he does with the glee of a child away from his toys for too long.

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