Thursday, November 12, 2015

Film Review: She's Funny That Way

"She's Funny That Way"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

It is so difficult not to admire a filmmaker like Peter Bogdanovich and a movie like "She's Funny That Way" (2015). It is because of that level of admiration one may feel that it is so disappointing Peter Bogdanovich's "She's Funny That Way" doesn't completely succeed.

Back in the 1970s Peter Bogdanovich was considered a new emerging talent in American cinema. Whereas his contemporaries such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were interested in making movies dealing with the issues of the day by changing the landscape of cinema with their fresh visual style. Mr. Bogdanovich was interested in reliving the past and mimicking his heroes like Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and John Ford. Mr. Bogdanovich wanted to bring back the style and sensibilities of the 1930s and 40s to cinema of the 1970s. For a while it worked. Audiences and movie critics (sheep) championed movies such as "The Last Picture Show" (1971), which scored a total of eight Academy Award nominations, wining two awards, "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) and "Paper Moon" (1973), which picked up four Academy Award nominations. But then the audience lost interest.

American film goers changed their taste. Movies became political, often displaying an anti-Vietnam sentiment, or commenting on a corrupt political system. In short, audiences wanted to see movies they could relate to. Movies which felt contemporary. Watching movies which were homages to the silent era of filmmaking, "Nickelodeon" (1976) or inspired by Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s, "At Long Last Love" (1975) with a Cole Porter score, weren't of interest to the general public. So, audiences turned their back on Mr. Bogdanovich. Audiences no longer went to see his movies. They weren't interested in what Mr. Bogdanovich had to say. He was too old-fashion, a dirty word to modern thinking people. The wrap against him was, Mr. Bogdanovich lacked a personal style. Martin Scorsese had a vision and a unique storytelling ability. Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassevettes, Woody Allen, all unique individuals that had a personal style. Their own style. Mr. Bogdanovich though, well, he was a copy-cat. He wanted to be Howard Hawks. He stole someone else's vision.

Lets for the sake of argument assume that it is true Peter Bogdanovich was a copy-cat. Do you have any idea what kind of talent it takes to copy to style of John Ford or Orson Welles? Try it. Even an art forger has talent. To suggest Mr. Bogdanovich's movies aren't personal isn't fair either. They are personal. He is making the movies he wants to make. The movies he grew up with. The movies he wishes more people were making. The movies he wishes more people were seeing. That makes them personal. Mr. Bogdanovich's movies are an extension of his personality. That should be clear to anyone that has ever seen him give an interview.

No one could deny Peter Bogdanovich's love of movies. In his youth Mr. Bogdanovich wrote movies reviews and interviewed several of the greats from Hollywood's golden era. He even became a film programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York showcasing the work of Welles and Ford.

This all leads us to "She's Funny That Way", the first theatrical movie Mr. Bogdanovich has released since "The Cat's Meow" (2001). Although "She's Funny That Way" is set in modern day New York and all the characters dress in modern clothes and go to modern restaurants and speak in modern slang, the movie really wants to be a 1930s sophisticated screwball comedy. The movie hints at Ernst Lubitsch but never quite reaches that level, mostly because it lacks witty dialogue and clever zingers. And it doesn't quite reach the level of Preston Sturges either because there isn't enough broad physical comedy. That's what makes "She's Funny That Way" disappointing. You know what the movie wants to stylistically accomplish, its goals are within its grasp but it never reaches its potential. "She's Funny That Way" doesn't clearly define itself and establish the correct tone and what it wants to be about.

Owen Wilson stars as Arnold Albertson, a Broadway director who is married, to an actress, and has two children. One day, on the night before rehearsals for his latest play, Arnold finds himself in New York a day before his wife and children will arrive. He checks into a hotel and hires an escort. He selects a woman named Glo (Imogen Poots), a young 20-something girl from Brooklyn, who lives with her parents (Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis) and dreams of one day becoming an actress. Arnold, who is going by a different name, and Glo, experience a romantic evening together. They go out for dinner, take a horse and carriage ride and eventually sleep together. It is after Arnold learns about Glo's dreams he offers her money to stop living as a prostitute and start her acting career. Arnold wants nothing in return. Not even to keep in touch. Glo agrees.

Time passes and Arnold is beginning casting for his next play "A Grecian Evening" written by playwright Joshua Fleet (Will Forte). It is agreed Arnold's wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn) will star in it along with Seth (Rhys Ifans) but unexpectedly Glo, now going by the name Isabella, auditions for the role of a call girl in the play. Arnold is not interested at all in casting her, despite everyone else very enthusiastic about her.

This aspect of the movie has possibilities and could have made for a funny, screwball, sex farce, with people running in and out of bedrooms and lots of physical comedy. But, that's not what "She's Funny That Way" is about.

We learn about a former client of Glo's a judge (the always reliable Austin Pendleton) who is obsessed with her and desperately wants to see her again. He even goes as far as hiring a detective (George Morfogen) to track her down and he isn't even every good at keeping his presence unknown. To help the judge get control of his emotions he begins to see a therapist (Jennifer Aniston) who proves not to be much help at all.

The twist to "She's Funny That Way" is all these characters will intersect and in one way or another they all unknowingly know each other.

The choice of Owen Wilson is an interesting one, especially since he starred in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) another comedy with an old-fashion sensibility. I wonder if Mr. Bogdanovich saw that movie and it in some way inspired him to cast Mr. Wilson.

Owen Wilson isn't as charming this time around as he was in Mr. Allen's movie. Mostly because he has less to work with and is not given a clearly defined character. What makes his character cheat on his wife? What makes him offer Glo money to change her life? We even learn Glo is not the first women the Arnold character has done this for. What is Arnold trying to accomplish? Does he see himself as some sort of savior figure? He is a protector of women? Why couldn't Arnold just be a horny Broadway director that seduces young wannabe actresses with the promise of making them stars? It may not be original but it would be much easier to relate to the character and give Owen Wilson more to work with as an actor.

Imogen Poots is supposed to be the scene stealer in "She's Funny That Way". This should have been a breakout role for her. Instead, once again, the character falls short. The audience isn't rooting for her. This isn't the hooker with a heart of gold character. It may have been Mr. Bogdanovich's intention to make the Glo character something of a Cinderella type of character, a poor girl who dreams big but again, our sympathy is not with her. At no point in the movie did I relate to her. I never felt sorry for her or was inspired by her. And, I'm sorry, I found the Brooklyn accent annoying.

Cybill Shepherd, Richard Lewis and Judy Punch are all wasted. Judy Punch once again plays a prostitute, as she did in Woody Allen's "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010). This time around Ms. Punch plays less of a character and more of a caricature while Ms. Shepherd and Mr. Lewis are wallpaper,

Surprisingly I would say the person that comes out looking the best is Jennifer Aniston. Her role as a therapist who is more neurotic than her patients is thoroughly enjoyable to watch, There was so much that could have been done with this character. An entire movie could have been built around her. There are very humorous scenes revolving around her therapy sessions with patients as other patients are calling her, leaving voice message on her answering machine for all to hear, leading her to briefly discuss her patients with other patients. It is priceless. It is also a shame Ms. Aniston has not been receiving critical acclaim from the sheep (movie critics). I guess no one told them to. A shame. It is one of the best roles Ms. Aniston has had in quite some time.

For as much as I may enjoy Ms. Aniston's performace or admire Peter Bogdanovich or even appreciate moments of "She's Funny That Way" in the end it is not enough. There is something missing. More laughs, better defined characters, more physical comedy. Peter Bogdanovich is a talented filmmaker. Young movie fans should watch his movies. All of them. But "She's Funny That Way" doesn't come close to the movies it is inspired by and doesn't come close to Mr. Bogdanovich's best. It lacks charm. I am certain though Mr. Bogdanovich still has a great movie in him to come. This was almost it.

P.S. - Too bad Mr. Bodganovich never uses the classic song "She's Funny That Way" as part of the soundtrack. Granted the lyrics have nothing to do with the movie (it is a love song about a man wondering why a "good woman" is standing by him when he has nothing to offer her, finally stating, "she's funny that way") but maybe an instrumental would have worked.