Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, like They All Laughed before it, is set in a hermetic Manhattan where charming extroverts are always just steps away from hailing a taxi, their budgets for doing so seemingly without ceilings, and no more than a few minutes away from any given destination among a small cluster of self-curated urban hangouts. In one comic set piece that plays like an insider callback to an almost identical scene in the prior film, the entire ensemble ends up, serendipitously, in the same upscale bistro for dinner, having all decided on their own to attend after parting from the same Broadway audition. While it’s tempting to fixate on the facets of modern Big Apple life that are missing from this decidedly concentrated portrait (racial diversity, cost-of-living stress, the hassles of urban time management, the subway system), it’s more fulfilling to look at what is there: a vision of the privileged class as a comically insular world, and its recognition of the idea that the paths taken by the privileged to reach their seemingly perfectly upheld lives haven’t necessarily been any less fraught with self-denied compromise and regret than those of less fortunate city dwellers.
Here as in They All Laughed, that compromise has to do with romantic dissatisfaction, a tension the film’s screwball plot methodically breaks down. Los Angeles-based theater director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) is married to the star of his upcoming play, Delta (Kathryn Hahn), but goes by “Derek” when flirting around. That’s how he comes to be known by Isabella (Imogen Poots), a Brooklyn call girl with, yes, a heart of gold, and who’s employed by Arnold on the first night of his New York stint. Isabella’s subsequently wooed by the playwright, Joshua (Will Forte), after she tries out for Arnold’s production without knowing the true identity of its director. Meanwhile, old sparks flare up between Delta and her dashing co-star, Seth (Rhys Ifans), and a high-strung therapist (Jennifer Aniston) disguises her own loneliness by spewing over the tangled desires of everyone around her (many of whom, inadvisably, entrust her with their woes). This web of desire suggests several comedies of remarriage stacked up to form a card castle, each one teetering perilously until the whole thing collapses and re-combinations result.
Familiar as its art/life paralleling may be, it’s all fueled by a filmmaker with an intimate relationship to his subject matter.
On a date to a museum, Josh points out to Isabella that one of the artists on display “worked before spirituality and sexuality separated.” The uninhibited state to which he refers is easily decipherable as the one ultimately discovered at the culminations of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s, where the formal ties of proper society lose meaning in the face of visceral connections. Like those iconic films, She’s Funny That Way sets the path to this destination in a space of play and performance—in this case, the theater—and delivers a series of riffs that call attention to the gulfs between the established and repressed identities of its characters. When Isabella first auditions, Seth, who’s witnessed from afar the evening Arnold spent with her, performs unlikely inflections in his lines to subtly arouse discomfort from his director. Later, after secrets have been spilled across the ensemble, Arnold’s half-hearted advice to keep personal skirmishes out of work is unheeded at a disastrous rehearsal that explodes the pent-up jealousies, frustrations, and desires coursing through the auditorium. (The mise-en-scène here is more televisual than expected of the Golden Age-smitten Bogdanovich, as static, conventionally framed close-ups abound, but jokes are expertly calibrated through rapid-fire editing.)
Familiar as this art/life paralleling may be, it’s fueled by a filmmaker with an intimate relationship to his subject matter. She’s Funny That Way was originally conceived as a follow-up to They All Laughed, with Bogdanovich’s muse, the late Dorothy Stratten, in the role of Isabella, and not only are there clear parallels between Bogdanovich’s courting of the Playboy model and Arnold’s immediate chemistry with Isabella, but there’s also a sense in which Poots herself has been dreamt up as a starlet on par with Stratten. The film’s narrative is framed as a memory Isabella has while being interviewed on the cusp of newfound stardom, so a large chunk of its 93 minutes are spent meditating on this charming actress in close-up, her expressive face registering fond reminiscences before she can verbalize them. Bogdanovich has never hid his infatuation for his blond leads well (John Ritter dropping to his ass after locking eyes with Stratten at the roller rink in They All Laughed is perhaps the image that best represents the director/muse dynamic at play in his movies), and Cybill Shepherd’s appearance as Isabella’s mother implies he’s aware of that history. But he’s also deeply aware, as She’s Funny That Way makes potently clear, of the ways in which romances among the personnel behind a dramatic production can produce works seen through love goggles.