She’s Funny That Way (2014): Man Screwballs Woman

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She’s Funny That Way might mark the return to cinema of Peter Bogdanovich, but the director knows well that to reach the screwball comedy heights to which he aspires, it’s the cast that has to shine, not the man behind the camera. And this cast might just be one of the greatest ensembles gathered in front of the same camera for any film made this decade, or even this century.

Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and Imogen Poots stand out, but Will Forte, Rhys Ifans, Kathryn Hahn, Richard Lewis and Cybill Shepherd help further prove my point. This is a screwball comedy standing shoulder to shoulder with It Happened One Night (1934) and The Awful Truth (1937) and holding its own as it does so. Other contemporary directors have prodded at the rotting corpse of the screwball comedy, but none have been brave enough to give it the kiss of life the way Bogdanovich does. Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and the Coens have scavenged elements of the sub-genre to further their own art and deliver a postmodern twist on what’s come before. But the film that’s come closest to matching the ideals and ambitions of She’s Funny That Way is Pierre Salvadori’s Priceless (2006). It’s a film with the bite and tenacity of Preston Sturges at his peak, but with a more romantic bent that Bogdanovich’s film.

In short, She’s Funny That Way is a reminder of what can be achieved with great actors and funny lines. The action is relayed by Isabella (or Izzy) Paterson (Poots) to a cynical journalist who’s interviewing her. The tale is her own rags to riches tale, a fairy tale. The subjectivity of her recollections is emphasised twice; first in how she talks about the movies she’s fallen in love with – she fondly recalls Fred Astaire spinning Ginger Rodgers and Bogart kissing Bacall, a clear example of Isabella speaking words more suited to the mouth of Peter Bogdanovich. And second, more overtly, when she says: “memory isn’t a video camera, is it?” She’s a romantic soul living the unromantic life of a call girl. She tries her best though, preferring the job title “muse”.

Arnold Albertson (Wilson) is a theatre director about to start rehearsals for a new play on Broadway. It’s his weak spot for rescuing prostitutes by giving them money to follow their dreams that instigates his meeting with Izzy. The dream she chooses to follow is a career in acting, setting into motion an unexpected (for all involved) audition for a part in Arnold’s play. His actor wife, Delta (Hahn), won’t stay oblivious to his penchant for prostitutes for long and another actor, Seth (Ifans), is more than happy to exploit this. Meanwhile, everybody (understandably) needs to see a therapist. Unfortunately, the therapist is absent without leave, so her daughter, Jane (Aniston) – whose boyfriend, Joshua (Forte), wrote the aforementioned play – is filling in. Throw in a protective father, an obsessive judge and an undercover detective, and you have all the ingredients of a farce. The resemblance to various strands of Woody Allen’s filmography is worthy of note. At times it plays like Allen’s early 70s farcical comedies, while the carefree featheriness recalls his underrated films of the early 2000s, like Small Time Crooks (2000) and Anything Else (2003).

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To dismiss the film as a mere anachronism is neither as fair nor as accurate as the film’s detractors might have you believe. Old themes are dropped into modern environments, and new ideas are often expressed in well-worn generic locations. Take one of the main settings, the swanky hotel. Attractive people running around in posh hotels is a staple of the screwball comedy (Easy Living (1937) and Hotel Haywire (1937) are the best – both written by Preston Sturges). Floors and corridors of identical doors differentiated only by the number on them and the people in them offer comedic possibilities that need no elaboration. For stretches of the film, the hotel can become a world adrift the way the cruise ship in Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) does. At no point do we slip into mid-20th century nostalgia though; the jokes are on the nose and suited to a contemporary sensibility.

Her role is very different, but if ever there’s been a female comedic performance to rival Barbara Stanwyck’s in The Lady Eve, it’s Jennifer Aniston’s here. Comedic roles in the actor’s post-Friends career have been thin gruel at best. Bogdanovich has unleashed in her what was always there; watching her deliver her lines with such ferocity and seeing how comedy empowers her is truly one of the most special things about She’s Funny That Way. Imogen Poots transcends her terrible Brooklyn accent, her character an archetype liberated by her role as narrator and/or inventor of the plot. As for Owen Wilson, he’s Owen Wilson. He plays himself playing a variation of himself. As knowledgeable of classical cinema as Bogdanovich is, he clearly recognises Wilson as the star (in the Clark Gable or Gary Cooper mould) he is.

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The screwball comedy rose from the ashes of silent cinema. The characters, muted for so long, seemed to be making up for lost time as quips and rapid-fire one-twos were blurted out at a rate of 20 per minute or more. The sheer mass of quotable lines of dialogue each film had rendered them all less quotable. The same way it’s easy to choose your favourite child when you only have one, less so if you had a few hundred. In one surreal scene from She’s Funny That Way, Arnold and Delta’s taxi driver stops in the middle of the road and wordlessly vacates the vehicle, leaving them to their incessant backseat bickering. It’s a clever comedic touch that diegetically comments on the nature of the comedy and the unreality of the situations the characters find themselves in.

Bogdanovich and the cast move through layers of farce with a mastery that comes from knowing the ropes and being in on the jokes. Everyone here knows what they’re doing, and every reference is there to be smiled at by cinephiles in the audience. That doesn’t make the film insular though. By rights, She’s Funny That Way should have a huge audience accompanied by critical adulation. It won’t get either. Like those underrated Woody Allen comedies, this is, for its sins, as many great works of popular art are: easy to enjoy, easier to dismiss. Though I’m certain history will treat it well.

 

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