Cinema is the appropriate place for cinephilia, I'd say, and so would Peter Bogdanovich, the über-cinephile director who was the most nostalgic (in a good sense) of the "new Hollywood" stylists. His only two theatrical features over the past 20 years over amidst television work, the Last of Sheila-ish The Cat's Meow and now She's Funny That Way, are cinephile to the core. The new film actually began its life as Squirrels to the Nuts - a title lifted from the dialogue in Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown that serves both as motto and leit-motiv - before being watered down for what we could safely assume to be marketing purposes into the more neutral and somewhat mystifying She's Funny That Way.
Mr. Bogdanovich has harnessed a dream cast of modern comedians for an unrepentantly old-fashioned screwball comedy of errors, full of slamming doors and romantic misunderstandings - the kind of film that was the bread and butter of American comedy, both on-stage and on-screen, for a very long time. And it's so wonderfully precision-tooled in its comings and goings that you almost ask, are you sure this isn't a long lost play? Well, it's not: it's an original script by the director himself, forced to take refuge on the hard-slog indie-financing scene, explaining why the classicism of She's Funny That Way has been pretty much ignored by everyone since the film premiered at Venice 2014. Not even the blessing of executive producers and devout fans Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach have helped the film gain traction.
This tale of aspiring actress and call-girl Imogen Poots's rise to Hollywood stardom through a chance meeting with Owen Wilson, as a stage director with a fondness for helping escorts escape sex work, is steeped in classic comedy tradition; its constant push-and-pull between stage and life, is also doubled by the constant meta-references to Golden Era Hollywood and even to Mr. Bogdanovich's own career (They All Laughed being a self-evident marker). The director keeps up the required pace and zip, and shapes the cast into such a finely tuned ensemble that the fact the staging can occasionally fall flat or look creaky is cheerfully ignored (despite the best efforts of designer Jane Musky, it's clear this is a low-budget production with a B-crew); also, there's a sense that some characters (such as Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis' parents or Joanna Lumley's alcoholic shrink) have all but been edited out from the final print. But She's Funny That Way is a solid return to form for a director who has been unfairly forgotten over the years. It's maddening to see Woody Allen continue to be acclaimed for doing stuff that isn't half as inspired, or as genuinely funny, as this.
SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY
US, Germany, 2014, 93 minutes
Starring Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Will Forte, Rhys Ifans, Lucy Punch, Joanna Lumley, Cybill Shepherd, Illeana Douglas, Richard Lewis, Austin Pendleton, George Morfogen, Ahna O'Reilly, Jake Hoffman, Tovah Feldshuh, Jennifer Aniston
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich; written by Louise Stratten and Mr. Bogdanovich; cinematographer Yaron Orbach; music by Edward Shearmur; production designer Jane Musky; costume designer Peggy Schnitzer; film editors Nick Moore and Pax Wasserman; produced by Logan Levy, Holly Wiersma, Ms. Stratten and George Drakoulias for Lagniappe Films in association with Venture Forth, Three Point Capital, Lailaps Pictures and Holly Wiersma Productions
Screened November 7th 2015, Lisbon