In 1962 Peter Bogdanovich wrote of Ernst Lubitsch’s film, Cluny Brown: ‘Charming, delightful, very funny, and completely carefree.’ Fast forward fifty-odd years and She’s Funny That Way, an old-Hollywood inspired farce about dirty directors, call girls and how the real and apocryphal are rarely worth prizing apart, feels like it was written with those four adjectives pasted to the writing-room wall. Indeed, Bogdanovich’s first feature in fourteen years continually references a line about squirrels and nuts taken from Lubitsch’s last completed film.
We meet Izzy Patterson (Imogen Poots), a call girl turned Hollywood starlet who is suddenly in the mood to tell a bitchy reporter everything regarding the insalubrious circumstances of her break. Skip a little while back to a hotel room where successful Broadway director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) has picked out a call girl called “Glow” for a racy night away from his actress wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn).
To assuage his guilt afterwards he offers “Glow” enough money to kick the old escort business into touch and follow her dream to be an actress. Using the alias Derek Thomas, a name Bogdanovich used for early directing jobs, Albert assumes his nominal subterfuge will cover up his infidelity. But it’s not much help when at auditions for the role of a call girl in his daftly titled show, ‘A Grecian Evening', Izzy turns up to audition and unsurprisingly nails the part.
Cue the comic unravelling of Arnold’s Mr-Nice-Guy façade, further complicated by the presence of Delta’s former flame, sinewy heartthrob Seth (Rhys Ifans), a high court judge intoxicated with “Glow”, a doddery private dick he’s hired to tail her, and his therapist, Jane, (Jennifer Anniston) who incidentally is dating the writer of ‘A Grecian Evening'. You get the picture: it’s pretty complicated and it’s all gonna come out in one helluva spin cycle.
The sink-or-swim for this kind of film rests on character and Bogdanovich gets strong comic performances out of his stellar up-for-it cast, with only Wilson dialling it in at times. In particular once used to Imogen Poots’ dubious Brooklyn accent (and you do get used to it) you can enjoy her understated star quality, whilst Jennifer Anniston is on brilliant form, as the world’s most angry and indiscreet therapist – her presence on screen is a real pleasure.
Unlike his golden age cinematic heroes however (and some of his own earlier work) Bogdanovich’s latest is not visually stylish or especially in love with the Big Apple. But never mind; it’s still a pleasure to sit back and just be entertained. With cinematic references and autobiographical nods aplenty, Bogdanovich is having fun on his own terms.
Indeed, there is something deliberately naïve about She’s Funny That Way, something ageless and timeless. And perhaps it’s because Bogdanoivch fans and cinematic indie-gods Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderseon are executive producers, it struck me that to have shot it in black and white would have been a wonderful touch and would have taken away from the somewhat prosaic cinematography.
Self-referential, fizzy and not meant to be fact-checked against any sense of reality, the film teeters on the edge of us not really caring, perhaps because we’re not rooting for any of these schmucks to get together. Still, it’s hugely enjoyable and will stay with you for as long as a bubble of champagne takes to burst, plus there’s no hangover.
She's Funny That Way is released in UK cinemas and Digital HD on June 26th