Can a screwball comedy be too breezy? Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way is a broad bedroom-and-backstage farce styled after the pre-Code comedies of the early 1930s—a retro exercise that announces itself with an Irving Berlin tune and a lengthy explanatory crawl set in an art deco typeface. Plotted as a round robin of dalliances and coincidences, it’s relationship comedy as weightless movement, meaning that something is always happening, but that none of it matters a damn bit.
Owen Wilson plays Arnold Albertson, a successful director who gets off on “rescuing” call girls, treating them to a romantic night on the town and a few choice lines borrowed from Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown, and then offering a briefcase full of cash on the promise that they quit sex work to pursue their dreams. Of course, he also sleeps with them. As the script—written two decades ago by Bogdanovich and his then-wife Louise Stratten as a vehicle for the late John Ritter—makes clear, Arnold is after the rush of experiencing genuine affection and gratitude from women who are only supposed to pretend to like him.
This begins to backfire when his latest charity case, Glow (Imogen Poots, sporting a cartoonish borough accent), takes his advice to heart about pursuing an acting career, and she nails an open audition for the role of a call girl in A Grecian Evening, the laughably bad Broadway play Arnold is directing. Not helping matters is the fact that all of Arnold’s previous rescuees seem to have come to New York to start those promised new lives (including one who’s pursuing her lifelong dream of running an escort service), or that the cast of A Grecian Evening happens to include Arnold’s wife (Kathryn Hahn) and a louche movie star (Rhys Ifans) who knows his secret.
Then there’s the bumbling private eye (George Morfogen) who’s been hired to tail Glow by a regular client (Austin Pendelton), whose deeply unsympathetic therapist (Jennifer Aniston) happens to be dating the writer (Will Forte) of the play—and so on and so forth. Run-ins and near misses are the movie’s stock-in-trade, narrated by Glow—real name Izzy Finkelstein—from some indeterminate point in the future, where she is a next-big-thing actress and calls herself Isabella Patterson; typical of the movie’s offhand vibe, the rise to stardom suggested by the flashback structure is explained away in one sentence as just another trick of chance.
Returning to film for the first time since 2001’s The Cat’s Meow, Bogdanovich keeps things simple, composing scenes in takes that are little longer that the modern-day norm. The onetime New Hollywood figure, who began his career as a critic and film historian, has thing for ’30s screwball, and his homages to the genre include both his biggest hits (like the hugely popular What’s Up, Doc?) and his oddest failures (like the Cole Porter musical At Long Last Love, in which songs are performed live and in single takes, in the manner of early talkies). Given She’s Funny That Way’s light touch and unfashionable goofiness, one would be hard-pressed to call it a comeback attempt. It’s more like a necessary stretching of directorial muscles.
The game, talented ensemble cast seems to be composed of people who’ve leapt at the opportunity to be a Peter Bogdanovich movie, no matter the role. (Michael Shannon, for instance, pops up for a couple of lines as a department store security guard, while a big-name screwball-comedy aficionado drops in to explain the Cluny Brown reference.) The deliberate over-casting brings to mind Woody Allen, who’s made his share of homages to classic Hollywood comedy—as does the presence of Wilson, who often seems to be reprising his high-strung but soft-spoken performance from Midnight In Paris, albeit with sleazier undercurrents. But while Bogdanovich lacks Allen’s gift for writing and structuring jokes, he tends to be less hands-off with actors; unlike in Allen’s later films, everyone here appears to be acting in the same movie. That movie is broad, occasionally clunky, sometimes funny, scattered with poignant grace notes, and, in its own peculiar way, endearing.