Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way is simultaneously everything one might expect and a complete surprise, a film that contains all of the strengths of the director’s past work in a completely new form. Most of the preoccupations of Bogdanovich’s earlier work are here: unfaithful partners struggling to find love (The Last Picture Show, They All Laughed, Texasville); the theater as a metaphor for the ways we “perform” for others and ourselves (Noises Off, Nickelodeon); prostitution as an extension and perversion of both romantic love and capitalism (Paper Moon, Saint Jack). She’s Funny That Way is also, like What’s Up, Doc?, At Long Last Love and just about every other movie Bogdanovich has ever made, a loving evocation of the films of his youth—an exquisitely crafted tribute to, in this case, the urbane romantic comedies of Ernst Lubitsch. Yet for all that is familiar about the film, it also conveys a relaxed ease on the director’s part not felt since his 1981 masterpiece They All Laughed—it’s a supremely confident late film by a director who has nothing left to prove, and thus proves all over again he’s one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema.
He’s also one of the most entertaining, and She’s Funny That Way is one of his most purely enjoyable pictures. It tells the story of Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson), a theater director who hires a call girl (Imogen Poots) and then gives her $30,000 on the condition she’ll use it to start a new life—something he has a habit of doing, unbeknownst to his wife and collaborator Delta (Kathryn Hahn). When the call girl, an aspiring actress, shows up at Arnold’s theater and gives a killer audition, she sets in motion a series of complications involving Arnold’s playwright (Will Forte), the playwright’s girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston, brilliant as the world’s worst therapist), a leading man (Rhys Ifans) who carries a torch for Delta, and several other supporting players.
Bogdanovich and co-screenwriter Louise Stratten have an extremely large number of characters to juggle, and they make it look effortless; every performance is perfectly pitched, every relationship is fully realized and pays off in hilarious and occasionally touching ways, and the farce is appropriately chaotic yet clear and concise. This kind of classically constructed comedy has all but gone out of style, but Bogdanovich delivers it with such craft and energy he makes it seem modern again.
The sense of care in every frame is a wonder to behold, from the flawlessly warm, inviting cinematography to the meticulous casting of even the smallest part. The supporting cast includes everyone from Michael Shannon and Jennifer Esposito to Bogdanovich favorites Colleen Camp, Cybill Shepherd and Tatum O’Neal—there are no throwaway roles or throwaway lines. If a joke is worth telling in a Bogdanovich picture, it’s worth being told by the best possible actor in a well-composed frame that expresses the joke visually and with editing that punctuates it with precision.
What’s amazing about Bogdanovich’s artistry is that it barely shows—after working on films in various capacities for 50 years, he knows how to convey the most emotion and information via the least complicated means. In one early scene he gets across a wealth of plot and character detail via an unbroken shot that’s just Owen Wilson sitting alone on a bed, juggling telephones. In one image Bogdanovich moves the story forward and provides vital exposition; establishes Wilson’s persona for the rest of the film; and lays the groundwork for more serious emotional moments (as well as comic ones) that will occur later on between Wilson and the various (unseen) women involved in his phone conversations. It’s the kind of tour de force that can only be accomplished by a director at the top of his game in collaboration with a talented actor who can deliver what that director needs—and it’s the kind of thing that happens again and again here.
It’s also the kind of thing that happens a lot in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s that established the tradition for She’s Funny That Way—movies like Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century or the best comedies of Lubitsch and Frank Capra. Yet while Bogdanovich is inspired by the old masters, he’s not imitative of them; he doesn’t steal or quote shots or make direct references (with one clear exception in the final scene). It’s more like he’s fully absorbed his influences so that they’re just an organic extension of his own personality—they’re a part of his DNA. In She’s Funny That Way he serves up a movie lover’s delight, and the best showcase for actors I’ve seen all year.
Even in scenes that would be throwaways in another director’s movie, Bogdanovich achieves powerful results. A framing device in which the prostitute recounts her story, for example, transcends cliché through the director’s judicious camera placement and Poots’ extraordinary performance. At the beginning of the film we expect her to be little more than a quirky stereotype, but as the movie progresses she subtly, poignantly reveals both the character’s insecurities and her strengths.
Bogdanovich has always been the American cinema’s great humanist—has any director built a career with fewer villains in his work?—and in She’s Funny That Way he gives us characters engaged in all manner of lies and infidelities who are nevertheless sweet, innocent and worthy of our affection even when (maybe especially when) they’re hurting each other. Bogdanovich’s talent is a valuable and necessary one, now more than ever: At a time when so many filmmakers turn their people into jokes, he turns jokes into people.
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writers: Louise Stratten and Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Will Forte, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans
Release Date: August 21, 2015
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.