She’s Funny That Way (2014)


RB Score:   9/10

Peter Bogdanovich reportedly had this in the works for well over a decade before its limited release with cast changes along the way.  The final product boasts a plethora of talented performers, is smart and funny, and is a joy to watch from the opening credits all the way to the end.

I can understand, somewhat, why the audience will be necessarily limited.  There are no special effects, it’s very much in the style of a stage play and very dialogue-driven.   It’s a throwback to the screwball comedies of old – think French farce, but set in New York, with crazy intersecting relationships and the inevitable colliding of worlds.  Bogdanovich assembled an exquisitely adept ensemble of players to bring his script to the screen,  with a consistent level of pacing that complements the expertly constructed dialogue.

Imogen Poots plays a gorgeous call girl, Isabella, aka Glowstick, who is telling her story to a reporter (although it comes across like therapy) as the movie opens.  This conversation provides the narration for the film.   Isabella only works as a call girl to support herself while pursuing her dream, being an actress.  She lives in a working class neighborhood with her dysfunctional parents, in lesser roles but played with comedic perfection by Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis.  When director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) is in New York working on his Broadway play, he checks in at his hotel and calls his favorite escort service, run by a low key but acerbic madam named Vicky (Debi Mazar).   Arnold, we discover, has an old-school romantic nature and likes to take the lady of the night out for a nice dinner, followed by a carriage ride in Central Park. After they spend the night together, he  offers her 30K if she will never do this again.

Of course it’s more complicated than that.  Isabella has a onetime client, a crazy but harmless old judge (Austin Pendleton)  who is obsessed with her, and Arnold has a wife named Delta, played by Kathryn Hahn.  Delta is also an actress, appearing in her husband’s play and will be arriving the next day.   Meanwhile, the lead actor, Seth, played by the versatile Rhys Ifans, checks into the same hotel and observes Isabella as she is leaving Arnold’s suite.  The next day, Isabella auditions for a role in the play and nails the reading with Delta, as Seth looks on knowingly.   One of the other actors attached to this project, and Arnold’s assistant, is dating a therapist, Jane, played by the always dependable Jennifer Aniston, who is hilariously lacking as a therapist, and we soon learn, only has clients because her mother, also a therapist, is in rehab and referred all her clients to her daughter.  One session with Jane, the audience can surmise without being told, is probably enough to send most normal people into therapy.  Jane’s boyfriend Joshua, a boy-next-door nice guy, played by Will Forte. is treated poorly by Jane, and thus we are inclined to be forgiving when he is smitten with Isabella at the audition and asks her out to dinner.

The only reason for the point deduction is that much of the hilarity  that ensues at this point, stems from the improbable scenario of almost all the characters in the film somehow all show up at the same Italian restaurant, at the same time, for dinner.  In New York City, really?  Jane is there with her client, the Judge, who sees the object of his affection, Isabella, and knocks over his water glass repeatedly, explaining distractedly that he’s very thirsty.  Jane also sees her boyfriend, at the same table with Isabella.  And of course Arnold and Delta couldn’t think of anyplace else to have dinner.  There’s also a private investigator hiding behind yet another menu.

I mentioned above that the various players are very adept performers – it’s really hard to find the right adjectives and adverbs to do them justice.  Consider Cybill Shepherd, in her small role as Isabella’s mom.  In a quick flashback scene where Isabella is describing her home life, we see the parents quarreling.  I don’t know how Shepherd does it, but when the husband says “Shut Up!” and she counters with “YOU shut up!”  there’s just something about the way her voice goes up just the right amount, and delivers the line with just the right amount of emphasis, that the effect is quite enthralling.  She can trade lines with the best, and has that instinctive sense of satire that fleshes out her roles as a higher comedy form.

The style of this movie has been compared to “Some Like It Hot” and even Woody Allen, but I think it’s more closely related to the comedic style of Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers in the  Pink Panther series of films.   This feeling might have something to do with the fact that Bogdanovich started working on this script in the 80s.  Maybe the 70s brand of creativity was still part of his mindset.

Jennifer Aniston, always shines in any ensemble she’s in.  She also has a knack that extends beyond the concept of comic timing, where she excels.  Aniston is a performer of integrity; she plays every character exactly as they seem to be written.   Because of that faithfulness to the source material, she reliably contributes a level of quality to the whole.

Owen Wilson is most suited to roles where he has a lot of dialogue, and he positively sparkles here.  Apparently, the late John Ritter was first envisioned as the lead; Bogdanovich did some revision to allow for more dialogue and less of the physical comedy that was Ritter’s trademark.  I’d have loved to see Ritter in this movie, he came across as a genuine person as well as performer.   Wilson’s Arnold is more subdued than we would have seen from Ritter, but he also interacts with the others in ways that elevate an already good script.

Rhys Ifans gives Seth additional dimension, pursuing Delta with sincere emotion that cuts through the character’s smarmy and manipulative nature.  Kathryn Hahn demonstrates her considerable skill in having Delta be similarly multifaceted.  Intense, vulnerable and wacky all at the same time.

With so much talent, good writing and even some interesting cameo appearances,  (including Tatum O’Neal and Quentin Tarantino) “She’s Funny That Way” is a welcome and delightful addition to the modern movie landscape.