“They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is a phrase all too apt for one of Hollywood royalty’s latest. Peter Bogdanovich is a filmmaker from the New Hollywood movement which now, ironically, feels dated in a golden classic kind of way. Films like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon arose out of a radically inventive period that spawned some of the greatest motion-pictures ever made. She’s Funny That Way is a screwball comedy with a title that even feels ripped from another era, and that’s merely where the homage begins.
Beginning with an opening crawl and the much-used “Cheek to Cheek,” which was famously the song from the dance number in the 1935 Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire film Top Hat, Bogdanovich is setting the tone for what is essentially a tribute to the work of Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and Woody Allen. Other than its use in Top Hat, “Cheek to Cheek” was also in The Purple Rose Of Cairo as Mia Farrow’s character settles in her seat to watch a film that we could imagine being She’s Funny That Way.
It may not have any of the subtext that made so much of the postmodern films by Allen and his contemporaries profound, but this is a sugary trifle that captures the spirit without any of the depth. The movie is fast-paced and things never stop happening, but it’s mostly shrugged off with a mild smirk and a lustful sense of nostalgia. She’s Funny That Way, which focuses on a battle between sexes as lies and infidelity converge, is in many ways a resurgence of the screwball comedy–a popular genre from the 30s that seems to have been replaced by raunchier sex comedies.
With a cast that includes Owen Wilson, Illeana Douglas, Graydon Carter, Will Forte, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans, and a relative newcomer, Imogen Poots, we trace an ensemble of characters involved in the production of a Broadway play. The story is told from the perspective of Poots’ character, a call girl named Issabella who sleeps with the director only to coincidentally be auditioning for his play the next day. Bogdanavich’s narrative hinges on playful conveniences and poor, selfish choices, but what makes most of it entertaining (enough) is the dramatic irony that builds momentum before the climactic convergence at a rehearsal.
Although there are a few giggles throughout, a lot of the sight gags fall horribly flat. A cameo from Michael Shannon feels forcefully shoehorned, and some of the characters’ shticks wear thin by the end. Even the framing device for the entire plot–an interview with Issabella about the whole ordeal a few years after the fact–can’t justify its existence, especially considering many of the rough transitions. She’s Funny That Way has modest ambitions and it hardly fulfills them, but even still, as much as I recognize its failures, I can’t feel contempt.
Long-time film critic Andrew Sarris described screwball comedies as “a sex comedy without the sex,” which is undoubtedly the product of a time with a rigid production code, but now, for those unaware of the history, it could be almost inventive. The dialogue and narrative-driven comedy is a refreshing departure from the gross-out humor that many of today’s comedies succumb to. Even some of the formal attributes, the longer takes and less obtrusive editing, are a nice shift from our post-Big Bang Theory age of comedy.
Even if they don’t make ’em as good as they used to, She’s Funny That Way tends to get by just by being made.