A number of scenes in She’s Funny That Way, the first proper film from latter-day New Hollywood master Peter Bogdanovich since 2001’s The Cat’s Meow, take place in a hotel room numbered 1369. It’d certainly be understandable to write it off as a non-essential detail; after all, the room had to have a number, so perhaps 1369 was the just the one that Bogdanovich and his co-writer Louise Stratten landed on. But in a frothy screwball throwback such as this, so favored by Bogdanovich in films like Paper Moon and What’s Up, Doc?, it takes on a symbolic significance, intended or not. The two key components of Bogdanovich’s bubbly frippery coexist within that single number: bad luck and sex.
Those are the two driving forces nudging the collected rubes of She’s Funny That Way into the delirious comic mousetraps that Bogdanovich sets for them. No bad idea can’t be made into a good one by the promise of sex, and coincidence so deliriously convenient that it can only be excused in the screwball context invariably widens the holes in those plans. At the center of this cyclone of farcical dysfunction stands Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson), a prominent theatre director with a penchant for patronizing prostitutes with enough money to get them on the track to non-tricking success.
One such beneficiary, the luminous Isabella (Imogen Poots, displaying the degree of talent required to transcend a name like Imogen Poots), transitions out of her moonlight gig as call girl Glo by auditioning for Arnold’s newest play, an erotic drama titled A Grecian Evening. She lands the lead role, co-starring alongside Arnold’s wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn), and the tense hilarity practically writes itself. Further complicating matters are the screenwriter (Will Forte, misused but pleasant all the same) who falls for Isabella despite being married to her therapist (Jennifer Aniston), and the play’s leading man (Rhys Ifans), who may still carry a torch for Delta years after their brief but passionate fling.
It’s fertile comic ground, but in his advanced age, Bogdanovich may no longer have the requisite strength to till it. When the story for She’s Funny That Way was first conceived, it was called Squirrels To The Nuts, Bogdanovich and Stratten were still a married couple, and John Ritter had signed on to play the role of Arnold. The film premieres in a different world than it was born into, and many of the jokes feel stale.
The celeb cameo from former Bogdanovich collaborator Tatum O’Neal feels somewhat less than timely (though an out-of-nowhere Quentin Tarantino cameo later in the game plays like gangbusters), but more than that, the jokes lack the punchy vitality of the director’s earlier work. It’s a pleasant enough film, more than adept when it comes to provoking a warm smile, but the sense of anarchy has faded. The haywire romances never really combust with the lunacy of the great screwball comedies that have come before, and Wilson’s inability to exude adequate charm leaves his Arnold looking like more of a slimeball than anything.
She’s Funny That Way makes for good fun, though it’s not necessarily funny in that or many other ways. If nothing else, it’s heartening to see Bogdanovich back in the saddle. If this film represents his movements to shake off over a decade’s worth of barnacles, it’s only enflamed the viewing public’s excitement for more.