If you’ve so much as read the headline of this review, you’re probably already thinking too hard about Peter Bogdanovich‘s star-studded “She’s Funny That Way,” which is but a trifle, designed to melt in your mouth like candy floss. In fact, it goes out of its way to avoid anything that even faintly smacks of realism or meaningfulness; it just wants you to like it. Which means, of course, that knives are being sharpened. Nothing spurs critical disdain quicker than a display of eagerness to please. Odd that along with edgy, ultraviolent dramas and dense, arty auteurist exercises, one of the most divisive of genres, especially in a cinephile crowd such as here in Venice, should be the screwball comedy. Which is the long way to say that your mileage on the manic, contrived and coincidence-strewn “She’s Funny That Way” may vary, based on how you feel about the very notion of screwball comedy in which mania, contrivance and coincidence are staple grains. Love it, and you’ll probably find the film a madcap throwback romp; hate it, and it’s a strident, dated bore. And both takes are kind of right, because while on the scale of the genre this one is neither the best nor the worst, it is among the screwballiest. Consider yourself warned.
The story is told via an irritating interview device that adds nothing, bar a thankless role for Ileana Douglas. So let’s put that to one side and describe the real plot of the film, which occurs largely as a series of flashbacks as newly minted star Isabelle Patterson (Imogen Poots) recounts her crazy, madcap (haterz read: ditzy, credulity-stretching) big break. As a call girl from Brooklyn (blue collar, not hipster) who refers to herself as “a muse,” Izzy Finkelstein, as she starts out, is summoned to the hotel of Broadway director Albert (Owen Wilson) though he goes by a pseudonym. In town for one night before his actress wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn, the film’s standout MVP) and kids arrive, he wants to indulge his secret fetish: after sleeping with call girls following a romantic date he has a pattern of “rescuing” them by giving them $30,000 as long as they agree to stop hooking and put the money toward some nobler dream. This time out Izzy is the recipient of his largesse (following an all-time-great shag, apparently), but the problem is her noble dream is to be an actress, and wouldn’t you know, the first part she’s up for is in Albert’s play, opposite Delta and established star Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans). And wouldn’t you also know it, despite both she and Albert being totally wrongfooted by seeing each other at the audition (pseudonym, remember?), Izzy gives an astonishing performance, perhaps because the play, wouldn’t you etc, appears to be a more or less literal translation of what’s happening for real.
Subplots abound. In her call girl/muse persona, Izzy enraptures an elderly judge (Austin Pendleton), who hires an equally aged private detective (George Morfogen) to follow her (love the throwaway gag that the detective agency’s motto is the forlorn “We’re never too busy”). This gumshoe (the film is dotted with archaic slang) just so happens to be the father of the Broadway show’s writer (Will Forte), who also falls for Izzy, despite dating hard-ass therapist Jane (Jennifer Aniston), who is the judge’s analyst. And Izzy’s. Delta and Gilbert have an ongoing flirtation, though Gilbert also patronizes Vicki’s (Debi Mazar) escort service, at one point hiring a delightfully dim-bulb Lucy Punch.
As much as there are shades of Woody Allen or Cukor or Lubitsch at their least substantial (a major plot point is derived from Lubitsch’s “Cluny Brown“), here Bogdanovich mostly references Bogdanovich. In fact, there were times when we almost felt like we were watching some sort of weird double exposure in which Poots’ Izzy, for example, was simply a transparent overlay over Barbara Streisand‘s Judy from “What’s Up, Doc.” Though not quite transparent enough for us not to wonder why it was Poots in the role of the Brooklyn-born Izzy Finkelstein, rather than an American actress. Her accent and demeanor are not wrong, exactly, she just feels studied at every moment, where part of her character’s appeal should be her spontaneity. Of course, “It’s just a farce/comedy/bit of diversion” covers a multitude of sins, but that excuse is already stretched rather thin. This is, after all, a New York City in which there appears to be only one restaurant, one hotel (that only has one floor), one psychiatrist, one escort service and everyone’s somehow related to everyone else.
“She’s Funny That Way” is retro to its very core—even the title font looks like the one from “The Pink Panther”—and while retro’s not necessarily a bad thing, there’s a bit of Russian Doll syndrome going on here. This is a 2014 film that was first conceived in the ‘90s that refers back to the screwball revival of the 1970s that itself referenced the classic Golden Age comedies. And one thing that does not translate so well across those decades, and a pivotal element for what purports to be a free-spirited (though chaste) relationship comedy, is gender politics. Aniston’s showy supporting role as a successful therapist should kick against that, and indeed it gives her the opportunity to inform people that she’s off to change her tampon and to write a book called “Why Bitchy is Beautiful.” But we learn along the way the reason for this hard exterior is a man cheating on her way back when. Even the subsequent professions of the other women Albert “rescued” are telling: one’s an actress, one’s a madam, and two are “in fashion.” Oh, for just one of them to have been a horticulturalist or a chartered accountant. And in case there was any doubt about how regressive the film’s view of women is, even the “she” of the title, the ostensible central character, has her ultimate success signaled not by a great role she lands, or an Oscar, but by who she’s dating (a last-second surprise cameo that’s probably been spoiled by now, but not by us, you hear? NOT BY US).
But there are jokes that land, and every time Kathryn Hahn steps on screen the film threatens to tilt on its axis and point toward a truer north. We’re not sure if Delta is actually written better than the other women, or if it’s just that Hahn brings “interesting” to a role the way some people bring dimples or a toothy grin. One largely improvised scene in a taxi between her and Wilson is a treat, and the film suddenly lets two talented comedic performers riff on an absurd situation. It’s a gust of fresh air through the scripted, hit-your-mark stuffiness elsewhere, but it’s also the most out of place moment, where naturalism, chemistry and believability briefly trump the narrow confines of farce. The rest of the time, “She’s Funny That Way” is just the cinematic candy floss we mentioned earlier. It’s manufactured, sweet and unpretentious, but like candy floss, we got tired of it before it was done, and it contains next to no nutritional value. [C+]