Peter Bogdanovich returns to the big screen after an almost 14-year hiatus with “She’s Funny That Way,” a well-timed, hilarious new film that debuted at the Venice Film Festival. The veteran director of “Targets” and “The Last Picture Show” pays heartfelt homage to the screwball comedies of the 40s and 50s, whose scripted alchemy took us away from the daily grind of life for 90 delightful minutes.
Isabella Patterson (Imogen Poots) is a Hollywood starlet recounting her improbable beginnings in showbiz, from reluctant escort girl to Broadway idol — all thanks to a chance encounter that changed her career forever. One night while on night duty, Isabella meets Arnold Arnoldson (Owen Wilson), a Broadway director who helps her pursue her dreams of becoming an actress and lands her an audition for the leading role in his play. Called in by Joshua (Will Forte), the timid playwright, she has to rehearse a scene with Arnold’s wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn), in which she is pregnant. Isabella lands the part, inspiring a long series of awkward coincidences that will involve the whole cast and crew of the play (as well as their relatives) in a comedy of lies and misunderstandings.
Into the already explosive picture comes Joshua’s wife, neurotic psychoanalyst Jane (a remarkable Jennifer Aniston) and her elderly, sprightly patient Pendergast (Austin Pendleton) who, forever enthralled by Isabella’s night performances, has hired a private eye (George Morfogen) to follow her everywhere. The private eye, a clumsy master of disguise, also happens to be Joshua’s father. From then on, an emotional earthquake leaves no stone unturned despite everyone’s effort to keep up appearances and hide behind their roles.
Remarkably, the script manages to build momentum while holding all the pieces together in a fast-paced comedy that never feels overburdened by neither its jokes nor its plot twists. Every vignette is carefully crafted within brilliant lines and rhythmic narrative maneuvers. Simplicity is the film’s strength as Bogdanovich reinterprets the fine art of entertaining using his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and love for one of its main ingredients: humor.
“She’s Funny That Way” is clearly intended as an homage to movies-that-once-were — but it is not a stale mausoleum. Set in contemporary New York, the film’s level of sexual content is probably the only elements that would be at odds in a classical Hollywood comedy.
How will the film play? Still awaiting a US distribution deal, “She’s Funny That Way”‘s theatrical release might suffer the bombast and bragger of the Oscar race — although the name attached to it should attract decent numbers and could potentially find a healthier afterlife in the VOD market.