There was a time when Peter Bogdanovich was regarded as one of Hollywood’s most exciting writer-directors. In the early 1970s, when he made The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon and What’s Up, Doc?, he was ranked alongside Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and he was often compared to his friend and hero, Orson Welles. After that, things didn’t go quite as planned. His films flopped, he was buffeted by bankruptcy and scandal, and his reputation plummeted. His most recent feature work as a director, The Cat’s Meow, came out in 2001, and while it was reasonably engaging, it was more like his TV movies of the past decade than a return to form.
But times change. A new generation has come to appreciate Bogdanovich’s contributions to cinema, and his long-awaited new film is co-produced by two fashionable indie directors (Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson), as well as featuring two major stars (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston). The unveiling of She’s Funny That Way, then, is a momentous occasion. As for the film itself... well, it’s not too bad.
What’s immediately striking is that it could have been made by Bogdanovich’s contemporary, Woody Allen. Opening with a jaunty Irving Berlin tune, it introduces a wide-eyed Hollywood starlet (Imogen Poots) who tells an interviewer, in an exaggerated Brooklyn drawl, about her love of classic black-and-white movies and her belief in the power of magic and luck. We then cut to New York, four years earlier, when the starlet was still a call girl and an aspiring actress named Izzy – and the film gets even more Woody-ish from there.
Izzy has an assignation in a luxury hotel with a man (Wilson) who is twice her age. She gasps at how romantic he is, and how fantastic he is in bed – a queasy moment, given that Bogdanovich is notorious for his taste in much younger women – but she doesn’t expect to see him again. The next day, though, she auditions for a Broadway play, only to find that its director is the man she’s just spent the night with. To complicate matters further, the director is married to the play’s leading actress (Kathryn Hahn), who is in turn adored by its scruffily sleazy leading man (Rhys Ifans). Also, the play’s author (Will Forte) is the boyfriend of Izzy’s therapist (Aniston) – although she’s so aggressive and he’s so woolly that it’s impossible to see why they’re together. There are further convolutions involving a smitten judge, a doddery private detective and two dogs, all of whom are surplus to requirements.
If you took out all the mobile phones, the film could have been set decades ago – and maybe that’s when the creaky screenplay was written. But if you’re not bothered by how dated it is, or how timid it appears next to the Venice Festival’s other backstage farce, Birdman, It’s Funny That Way just about passes muster as a pacey and perky little comedy. Aniston boosts the film’s energy levels by insulting and snapping at everyone she meets, patients included, and Ifans’ cheeky British ribaldry gets a few laughs.
The problem is that none of the zany coincidences and the frenetic comings-and-goings seem to matter. There’s nothing at stake. People keep hiding in hotel bathrooms and spotting each other in restaurants, but their antics don’t make much difference to any of them – or to us. Maybe they don’t make much difference to Bogdanovich, either. Apart from reminding us of his well-documented affection for Ernst Lubitsch and the Hollywood comedies of the 1940s, he doesn’t have anything to tell us – even after all this time away from the big screen. She’s Funny That Way could be a Woody Allen film, all right, but it would be one of Allen’s sloppier recent efforts rather than one of his best.