She’s Funny That Way, the new comedy from famed New York director Peter Bogdanovich, is achingly inauthentic from start to finish. In part, that’s a reflection of its inception as a refurbished script from last millennium dusted off for a contemporary setting. This explains why, in 2015, a part-time call girl (Imogen Poots) still takes bookings over a landline and why the comedic possibilities of the script seem to hinge on inexplicably-ineffective cell phones.
It’s also a reflection of a screenplay – co-written by Bogdanovich with ex-wife Louise Stratten – which intentionally embraces artifice to pose a post-modern riff on the old-fashioned “a star is born” narrative, Poots’ character retelling her ‘big break’ into Hollywood four years after her aborted experience as an escort. So the overt falseness of it all – Jennifer Aniston as a hyperbolically terrible therapist, Rhys Ifans implausibly playing a sex symbol – can be hand-waved away; that inauthenticity is the point (allegedly), as a couple late directorial cameos (including Bogdanovich, sorta) emphasise. Problem is that it’s not much of a point. She’s Funny That Way is desperately shallow, failing to say anything new or interesting while, crucially, failing to actually be funny.
Not that it doesn’t try. An incredibly talented, largely miscast company of actors are wasted on a script that emulates the staccato comic rhythms of the screwball while omitting that genre’s trademark wittiness. (If you were to plot a Venn diagram including ‘lines that elicited laughs from the audience’ and ‘dick jokes’ you’d be left with a perfect concentric circle.)
The cavalcade of coincidences – she’s married to him, he’s his son, he’s acting alongside her, etc etc – suggest that we’re in fact supposed to be watching a farce, but the pacing is all off. Instead of the exponentional acceleration into absurdity that a great farce demand, She’s Funny That Way plugs along at a constant rate. Bogdanovich tosses these characters together into complicated scenarios that promise absurdity before resolving themselves in the least interesting fashion. It’s as though these coincidences are intended to operate as comedy in of themselves, without any attempt at escalation.
What about those actors? Poots, per Need for Speed and A Long Way Down, shines in another shitty movie, even if her performance is buried under a laughably overdone Brooklyn accent. Owen Wilson – inhabiting a role originally intended for John Ritter – sells the hangdog charisma of the film’s back half, but his laconic energy is poorly suited to screwball. Aniston is terrible, though she can get away with blaming the role. Will Forte, playing her husband, has no such excuse – he just delivers a profoundly bland performance. Kathryn Hahn is about the only actor delivering an above-average performance, even if the film is more concerned with New York taxicabs and Broadway plays than its female characters.
Perhaps – as a Bogdanovich virgin, poorly educated in the specifics of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood – my disinterest in the cinema can be attributed to all the in-jokes fluttering past overhead. I suspect the more likely explanation is simply that this once-great director’s talents have atrophied into nostalgia-fuelled mediocrity. It’s not funny that way, nor any other way – it’s just sad.