I was (and still am, I suppose) a fan of the TV show FRASIER. Its best episodes were the ones where Frasier and Niles got themselves embroiled in a chaotic mess of their own making. The rapid-fire banter between the two of them was classic. It showed now only how good the actors are but how well the show was written. I remember one episode where Niles and Frasier decide to go to a ski lodge, in what they hope will be a sex-filled weekend with Daphne and her model friend Annie, respectively. In this cabin, all the bedrooms are adjoined to each other in two places – a situation that would be highly unlikely but it makes for some great humour. While Niles pines for Daphne, she pines for Guy, the handsome, French ski pro. But Guy is gay (that alone is worth two laughs) and he is interested in Niles, whom he thinks is also gay. Meanwhile, Frasier hopes to score with Annie, but she is also interested in Niles. It is a comedy of misunderstandings and wrong bedrooms as all the characters hop from room to room.
I wish I could say that SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY is, well, funny that way… but it’s not.
The film revolves around Arnold (Owen Wilson), a movie director who comes to New York to direct his wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn, AFTERNOON DELIGHT), and his old friend, Seth (Rhys Ifans) on the Broadway stage. On the night before auditions start, Arnold hires call girl Isabella aka “Glow” (Imogen Poots) to come to his hotel room for a bit of relaxation therapy. After their romp in bed, Arnold offers Isabella $30,000 if she gives up that line of work and follows her passion, which just happens to be acting. The next morning at auditions, who shows up to read but Isabella?
And that’s where the problems begin. It turns out that when Isabella left Arnold’s room, Seth (who happened to be staying in a room across the hall) opened his door and saw the two of them together. Seth, we learn, had a fling with Delta a few years back and isn’t over her. We also learn that Isabella shares a therapist, Jane (Jennifer Aniston), with another client, Judge Pendergast (Austin Pendleton), who is infatuated with her. Meanwhile, Jane is dating Arnold’s playwright, Josh, (Will Forte, NEBRASKA) and Josh’s father, Harold (George Morfogen) is the private detective hired by the judge to follow Glow.
SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY is an old-time screwball comedy done in the style of Hollywood’s master directors from the 1930s and ’40s – Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch. (In fact, the film’s oft-repeated line – “squirrels to the nuts” – is borrowed from Lubitsch’s 1946 film, CLUNY BROWN.) But FUNNY’s director, Peter Bogdanovich, isn’t able to capture the zaniness with his film that the other directors did so well with theirs. This is more than a bit surprising given Bogdanovich’s impressive body of work that includes THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, PAPER MOON and MASK. He also directed another screwball comedy back in 1972 called WHAT’S UP DOC?, starring Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand.
The big problem with FUNNY is that it doesn’t reach that level of mania that good screwball comedies have. In WHAT’S UP, DOC?, misplaced luggage sets up the scenario but it’s Streisand’s character (Judy Maxwell) who keeps everyone on their toes. In THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (director George Cukor’s 1940 film), an impending wedding sets up the scenario. Cary Grant’s character (Dexter Haven) is the one this time pulling everyone’s strings. In SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY, Arnold comes closest to being the puppet master but even he can’t control the sticky situations when they pop up. The closest the film gets to being zany occurs when Arnold has Isabella in his hotel room and Delta calls him from the lobby. She tells Arnold that she’s coming up to the room and, ten seconds later, his doorbell rings. Panicked that Delta will find Isabella there, he tells Isabella to hide in his bathroom. A good screwball comedy would have a way out from there – even a window – so that everyone including Arnold would be surprised when Delta finds the room empty. But it doesn’t happen that way.
So the fault with this film lies with the screenwriters – one of them being Bogdanovich himself and the other being his now ex-wife Louise Stratten. The story is flat, the staging is wrong, the opportunities for misunderstanding are few and far between, the pacing is slow and the repartee is weak.
This could have been a good film. Unfortunately, it’s just not funny in any way.
(On a positive note, keep your eyes out for actors who have starred in Bogdanovich’s previous films. Two of them have already been mentioned here.)
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 34:30.)
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