Isabel (Imogen Poots), a call girl, spends the night with a man she does not know is really famed theater director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson). Taken by her charm and sincerity Arnold gives her thirty-thousand dollars to quit prostitution and pursue her dream of becoming an actress. An act of generosity that bites Arnold in the ass some time later when Isabel auditions for a lead role in his latest production. One that happens to co-star his suspicious wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn) and her scheming former lover, film star Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans). Having seen Isabel leaving Arnold's bedroom that fateful night, Seth is only too eager to expose him. Meanwhile the author of the play, Joshua Fleet (Will Forte) is very taken with Isabel, unaware that his girlfriend Jane Claremont (Jennifer Aniston) happens to be her therapist. Before long a hapless Isabel finds herself the centre of a very tangled web of romantic complications that also involve a besotted judge, a private eye and her own bickering parents. On top of that it turns out Isabel is not the first recipient of Arnold's generosity towards call girls.
Of all the superstar auteurs of the Seventies Peter Bogdanovich has arguably had the hardest time adjusting to the twenty-first century. Unlike the Movie Brat peers in whose ranks he is often inaccurately lumped with, he had no interest in blockbusters and struggled working as a hired hand for the big studios (even Robert Altman was better at playing the studio game). At the same time, unlike say Martin Scorsese, he has never infused his classical leanings with sensibilities progressive enough to engage the indie crowd. Though Bogdanovich made his bones with the uncompromising drama of The Last Picture Show (1971) his comfort zone has always been screwball farce. The sort mastered by some of his filmmaking idols: Leo McCary, Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor and especially the great Howard Hawks. Some of whom he was lucky enough to befriend and routinely interview in his early career as a movie critic. Bogdanovich revived screwball farce in the Seventies and the genre provided him both triumph (What's Up, Doc? (1972)), unmitigated disaster (At Long Last Love (1975), Illegally Yours (1988)) and underrated work (Nickelodeon (1976), Noises Off (1992)).
Co-written with his then-wife Louise Stratten, as a means of alleviating the stress of their attempts to buy back the rights to their earlier troubled romantic farce They All Laughed (1981), She's Funny That Way is a return to familiar territory for Bogdanovich: a love triangle, caricatured theater types, romantic misunderstands, 'comical' infidelity. Accompanied by a soundtrack of old favourites (Cole Porter, Irving Berlin), allusions to classic Hollywood (Arnold is fond of quoting a key line from Lubitsch's last completed film Cluny Brown (1946)) and fun cameos from seasoned Bogdanovich players: Austin Pendelton as the judge, Cybill Shepherd as Isabel's mom, Tatum O'Neal as a waitress, Colleen Camp (also credited as associate producer) as a store manager, among many others (strangely enough, Michael Shannon also has a bit-part as a security guard).
Alas, She's Funny That Way has misfortune to arrive at a point in time when a new generation of cineastes are in the midst of harshly reassessing the style of film to which it obviously aspires. Viewed in a contemporary context the film can't help but seem out of step with the social mores and gender politics of our age. If not downright alien. It does not help that the film strains for levels of pep and wit that the meandering, insubstantial script simply cannot sustain despite the efforts of a game cast clearly enjoying themselves. Perhaps the best that could be said of She's Funny That Way is that it is Woody Allen-lite. Which given Allen himself is something of a tricky prospect might not be saying much.
Both script and cast go out of their way to make these shrill, self-obsessed upper class New Yorkers sympathetic yet the characters still come across as some kind of nebulous Seventies re-imagining of a Forties archetype. Upholding a streak of impressive performances Imogen Poots is genuinely beguiling while Will Forte's innate sweetness illuminates an otherwise obtuse character. On the other hand the film fatally misuses the hitherto perennially watchable Jennifer Aniston as a therapist with zero empathy for her patients: a character funny in concept yet grating in execution. Although suffused in a love of old-fashioned romance and the belief dreams really can come true (something Imogen Poots really sells in her wraparound scenes with skeptical interviewer Illeana Douglas) it is hard to discern whether Bogdanovich is aiming for sincerity or satire. Indeed underneath its frothy feel-good surface, the film is alarmingly cynical painting all its male characters as deceitful, feckless horn-dogs and the women as neurotic and self-deluding. Throughout all the creaky contrivances of a hackneyed plot Imogen Poots works hard to remind us Isabel is a vulnerable, empathetic human being with a wholehearted belief in miracles whom we do not want to see hurt. If the plot does not reach a climax so much as simply exhaust itself at least the celebrity cameo punchline proves worth it.