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She's Funny That Way
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by Peter Sobczynski

"No Escape"
1 stars

Faithful readers will recall that I spent a good deal of time and space excoriating Noah Baumbach's "Mistress America," an attempt to do a modern-day variation of the classic screwball farces of old that was as strident, annoying and desperately unfunny as a film could be without inspiring a class action lawsuit against its distributor for falsely claiming that it was indeed a comedy. Staggering out of that one, I could have hardly believed that another film might come out in the foreseeable future that could possibly further defame the good name of the genre that gave us such effortless masterpieces as "Libeled Lady" and "His Girl Friday." And yet, no more than a week after it was released comes Peter Bogdanovich's "She's Funny That Way," another neo-screwball screw-up that is so awful that while watching it, I felt as if I should apologize to Baumbach for some of the things I said since his film at least flirts with a basic competence in its intriguing opening scenes that this one never manages to approximate. As it turns out, Baumbach actually gets a credit on this film as well for serving as a co-presenter along with occasional collaborator Wes Anderson. The only possible explanation for this is that perhaps he decided to throw what trace amount of weight he has behind the release of this one because its sheer crumminess might force some otherwise right-minded people to look back and decide that maybe his film wasn't that bad after all.

As the film opens, up-and-coming actress Isabella Patterson (Imogen Poots) is recounting her unusual path to fame and fortune for a bored journalist (Illeana Douglas) in a series of flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film. As it turns out, four years earlier, she was a Brooklyn-based hooker and aspiring actress named Izzy Finklestein. One night, she goes off to meet with a new client and while she has no idea who he is, we know that he is Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson), a famous director who has just arrived in New York to direct a new play on Broadway starring wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn) and Lothario lead Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans). For his part, Arnold has an especially bizarre fetish--he hires a call girl, charms them with his puppy-dog ways and clever turns of phrase (that turn out to be not-so-clever after all) and when the deed is done, he offers to give them $30,000 right then and there as long as they promise to abandon prostitution for good and use the money to make something else of their lives. Now I admit that I am no expert of current economics in regards to theatrical arts but considering the number of times that Arnold appears to have pulled this semi-altruistic act, I am not entirely certain that even Mel Brooks at the height of the run of "The Producers" could have afforded this little quirk. Maybe Arnold hides these expenditures in the budgets of his play, hoping that no one would notice an extra thirty grand in the props line item.

Anyway, Izzy accepts and her good fortune continues the next day when she is called in for a last-minute audition for a play soon to open on Broadway. In a shocking twist, it turns out to be the one that Arnold is doing and while he tries to get rid of her immediately, both Delta and playwright Joshua Fleet (Will Forte) think she is absolutely perfect for the part--Joshua is, of course, instantly besotted with her. For his part, Seth, who is nursing a long-standing crush on Delta, goes along with them as well, though he knows exactly who Izzy and even saw her leaving Arnold's hotel room. Adding to the complications are Joshua's girlfriend, Jane (Jennifer Aniston), a spectacularly self-centered and generally awful woman who inexplicably makes her living as the world's worst psychiatrist, Izzy's constantly arguing parents (Richard Lewis and Cybil Shepard and yes, you read that correctly), a dimwitted judge (Austin Pendleton) who is himself creepily obsessed with Izzy and the detective that he has hired to constantly keeps tabs on where she is and who she is with (and yes, he does have an array of wacky disguises at his disposal). Naturally, they all come crashing together in the third act and wackiness ensues for one and all.

A careful analysis of the screenplay of any screwball comedy will almost certainly reveal it to be a compendium of contrivance and coincidence from start to finish--the trick is to film the script in such a breathless manner and with just the right casting so that viewers don't notice the seams. For example, the 1934 film "Libeled Lady" has a plot that must have seemed ridiculous back in the day but it has been executed in such a sublimely madcap manner that even though I have seen it countless times, I never fail to be carried away by its charms whenever I come across it on TCM. On the other hand, the aforementioned "Mistress America" does such a subpar job of setting up its would-be comedic premises and its largely uninteresting and unlikable set of characters that when the film finally makes its grand shift into door-slamming farce in its second half, the contrivances all but leap off the screen and shake you by the lapels in their increasingly desperate efforts to make viewers laugh. If there is anyone out there who should know what makes a screwball comedy tick, it is Bogdanovich, a filmmaker/historian who had tremendous success with modern screwball farce with "What's Up Doc?" and who knows more about what makes a classic film tick than anyone.

Despite his presumed pedigree, "She's Funny That Way" misses the mark so completely that it seems as if it was made by someone who had never even heard of the likes of "Bringing Up Baby" before. One of the chief problems is that the screenplay, which he co-wrote with now ex-wife Louise Stratten back in the Nineties, is an ungodly mess in pretty much every conceivable way. The plot is a nonsensical mess that never jells into anything remotely resembling cohesiveness and is so retrograde in its attitudes towards prostitution that it make "Pretty Woman" almost seem like a hard-hitting documentary expose by comparison. It never figures out a way of selling the contrivances required to move the story along--instead of being swept up in the silliness, I kept finding myself thinking if something had happened to the various service industries in New York City since there now appeared to be only one hotel, restaurant and call girl operation left for the characters to use. Also, the framing device involving the reporter is both patently unnecessary to the plot and disastrous to the structure in the way that it grinds things to a halt every time it cuts back to Izzy and the reporter. In fact, the only amusing thing about this part is trying to imagine how the final interview would wind up playing once it was released--if you thought that morning news interview with Cara Delevigne was awkward, wait until you get a load of the allegedly penetrating interview depicted here.

Speaking of the characters, none of them are nearly as charming as Bogdanovich wants us to believe. Far from being sheepishly likable as he tries to juggle the new complications in his personal and professional lives, Arnold is kind of a creep throughout and as a result, I found myself actively rooting for his downfall. For her part, Izzy is undeniably pretty but otherwise a bore who looks and sounds like a refugee from the chorus of an especially wan production of "Anything Goes" and whose spell she somehow casts on virtually everyone she meets is inexplicable, to say the least. Everyone else is either boring, skeezy or both and when they all come together in the final act for their big confrontation to shout and pout and otherwise deliver their increasingly hackneyed dialogue in the shrillest manner imaginable, the end result is like a verbal car crash from which there are no survivors, especially amongst those in the audience.

Bogdanovich also proves himself to be just as clumsy behind the camera this time around. That is an even bigger disappointment because while his filmography is undeniably shaky and uneven, he has made a number of good-to-great films over the years ranging from early triumphs like "Targets" and "The Last Picture Show" to underrated gems like "At Long Last Love" and "Saint Jack" to the late-period comeback that was "The Cat's Meow." That last title, made in 2001, was his last theatrical release and based on the results here, it appears as if his directorial skills have flat-out calcified in that time. The timing, a critical component of comedic filmmaking, is off right from the start and the movie never gets a chance to build up the appropriate head of steam that might have help to sell this nonsense. Bogdanovich's films have almost always had a sort of formal elegance to them that held the eye but the staging this time around is almost unbearably clumsy and clunky at time--the scene in which nearly all of the characters converge upon the same restaurant looks so rough that it feels as if he shot the very first rehearsal and then accidentally included it in the final cut.

In his heyday, Bogdanovich was alternately hailed and rebuked for his overt homages to classic Hollywood that he included in his films. At least when he was making films like "What's Up Doc," he was aping the work of one of the great directors of all time, Howard Hawks, and managed to find a way to translate his genius to modern sensibilities. Here, Bogdanovich seems to be aping no one but himself and without much success--the screwball stuff feels like a desperate attempt to revive the spirit of "What's Up Doc?" and the idea of couples blithely going through revolving doors in their relationships is one that explored more fully and more amusingly in such films as "At Long Last Love" and "They All Laughed." (The self-homage even extends to the end credits, which includes a brief look at a couple ancillary characters sitting down to watch an episode of "The Sopranos" featuring Bogdanovich himself.) His more traditional references to old Hollywood fall equally flat, especially one involving a quote from the Ernst Lubitsch film "Cluny Brown" that runs all the way through the film without being cited. Finally, at the end of the film, the source of the quote is revealed and then Bogdanovich brings in a guest star to both serve as a lame punchline (one that might have been a little more effective had the film been made two decades ago) and to further explain and underline where that bit was taken from. Then, if that were not enough, Bogdanovich sticks in a clip from the actual movie for good measure. By this time, most people will be so goddamn sick of it all that not only will they come away from this never wanting to see another Bogdanovich film again, they may never want to see "Cluny Brown" again either.

The final nail in the coffin for "She's Funny That Way" is the way in which it seems to have almost been perversely and deliberately miscast with people unsuited for the task of meeting and maintaining the intricate rhythms required to successfully pull off this kind of comedy. It is borderline insane, for example, to take an actor like Owen Wilson, pretty much a walking definition of the phrase "laid-back," and stick him into a role that requires him to become increasingly frantic as things progress--one thing that a screwball comedy does not need is a central actor who always seems ready for a nap. British-born Imogen Poots, on the other hand, has a closer grasp on the necessary approach for this kind of comedy but is stuck with a character who is just not particularly fun or clever or interesting and is further hamstrung with a Bronx accent that is about as convincing as Chico Marx's Italian one, though never quite as funny. Likewise, Will Forte and Rhys Ifans are good actors but are not convincing in the slightest as the hunky dreamboats they are supposed to be playing. Jennifer Aniston actually comes closer than most to hitting the right performance notes but her character is so shrill and awful throughout--and not in a funny way--that I found myself in the weirdly unfamiliar position of almost feeling sorry for her for the material she has been given. The funniest performance in the film, it should be noted, is a brief appearance by Lucy Punch as a foreign-born prostitute who shows up at the right place at the wrong time (or possibly vice-versa)--she comes in too late in the proceedings to help save things and quickly disappears but in a couple of minutes, she overcomes the weak material and almost manages to wring an actual laugh or two out of it.

"She's Funny That Way" is a complete failure all around--it has a script that never should have come down from the shelf where it had been residing for a couple of decades, a director who seems to have lost whatever filmmaking faculties he once possessed and a cast that mostly just seems embarrassed to be there. I get no pleasure out of saying any of this because Bogdanovich has made some good films in the past (may I suggest "Targets," "Daisy Miller," "At Long Last Love," "Saint Jack," "The Thing Called Love" and "The Cat's Meow" for your immediate perusal) and I went into the theater fully hoping that he had come up with another one and only getting this leaden and desperately unfunny botch instead. I am heartened, however, to see that IMDb has two upcoming projects listed that he is attached to as director. Here is hoping that he gets at least one of them officially off the ground because even the hackies filmmaker imaginable doesn't deserve to wrap up a career with something as terrible as this.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=27669&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/27/15 21:53:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2014 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival For more in the 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

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  21-Aug-2015 (R)
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