She’s Funny That Way is funny in that way where you can see where all the jokes are supposed to be, but can’t quite figure out where to laugh. It’s an old-school screwball attempt, lousy with references to Lubitsch, Astaire and Rodgers, and Charles Boyer, without ever living up to its great inspirations. It turns itself in knots introducing a web of interconnected New York neurotics. We meet an aspiring actress working as a call girl (Imogen Poots) who is cast by her former john playwright (Owen Wilson) in a production he’s mounting starring his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and her ex-flame (Rhys Ifans) with the boyfriend (Will Forte) of the call girl’s psychiatrist (Jennifer Aniston). So far so good, a near perfect farcical setup that proceeds to fizzle out for the remaining 90 minutes.
Its director and co-writer is Peter Bogdanovich, a critic and historian who has made several great movies. His debut decade or so of work includes a disturbing mass shooting horror picture (Targets), a charming caper (Paper Moon), a tender small town drama (The Last Picture Show), a documentary (Directed by John Ford), a screwball comedy (What’s Up, Doc?), and a farce (They All Laughed). Not a bad track record, but he’s spent the last thirty-plus years infrequently making films that simply don’t live up to his early promise. Presently he’s slightly more interesting as a public figure, where he can occasionally be found blogging, lecturing, acting, or playing himself in one of the otherwise terrific The Good Wife’s worst scenes. His latest film is his first theatrical feature since 2001. I suppose he thought this would make for a fun little movie.
And it does at times live up to its potential. With co-writer Louise Stratten he’s concocted vaguely pleasant and moderately charming scenarios in which misunderstandings, deliberate misdirection, and relationships falling together or apart are enacted through juggled phone calls and slamming hotel room doors. There’s even a bubbling subplot involving detectives that recalls the best loopy moments of his They All Laughed. And what a cast assembled to pull it off! You don’t get the aforementioned grouping of usually reliable charmers assembled without generating a few smiles, at the very least. They’re terrific at what they do, holding the screen, digging out avenues for amusement while zipping towards emotional truths of their characters’ conflicts. It’s just a shame that the writing and filmmaking surrounding them is so lifeless, casual, and musty.
No scene is entirely successful. They are strings of mismanaged performances fumbling through fuzzy characterizations in a stumbling pile-up of frazzled lines. No one is miscast, exactly, but they can’t quite manage to make their thin types really pop in a way to be successful broad farce, or deep enough for real drama. This makes the film ultimately too shrill and too airless. Bogdanovich has the right idea, and a lot of the right notes, to make his nostalgia for Lubitsch movies into pleasant throwback comedy, but the rhythm and tempo is all off. Poots plays charming accent whack-a-mole, Wilson seems to have floated in from his Woody Allen collaboration, and the rest wrestle admirably and amiably with grating miscommunications. When farce goes bad, it goes very bad, indeed. At a certain point, I stopped struggling to have a good time and simple sat back and waited it out.