Old-fashioned Hollywood pizazz arrived at the Venice Film Festival this year in the form of Peter Bogdanovich’s delightful, zinger-filled farce She’s Funny That Way (2014). Owen Wilson stars as protag Arnold Patterson, a director preparing a play for Broadway. The night before casting begins, Arnold – using the name Dennis – calls up an escort agency and gets them to send over Izzy (Imogen Poots), but instead of the usual ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ takes her out for a romantic dinner followed by a ride through Central Park. Channelling his inner Richard Gere, he offers Izzy $30,000 if she gives up her life as a working girl to follow her dream of becoming an actress.
Izzy does just that and in the process upsets a judge (Austin Pendleton) who is obsessed with her and who happens to share the same unorthodox, monstrous shrink, Dr. Jane (Jennifer Aniston) – and who has even hired a private detective to watch her. However, things go truly pear-shaped when Arnold’s wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn) arrives (who also happens to be the lead actress of the play), opposite an old flame. Following Dr. Jane’s intervention, Izzy (now Isabella) auditions for the final role to be cast in the play. Doors are opened and closed, bathrooms are used as hiding places and everyone turns up at the same restaurant/department store/hotel. Ours is not to reason why, and Bogdanovich and co-screenwriter Lauren Stratten frame the shenanigans in the form of an interview with an acerbic Hollywood reporter.
Bogdanovich’s latest is very much a Hollywood shaggy dog story and, so to conform to the Shakespeare in Love rule of comedy, there’s even a funny skit involving with a dog. The improbability of it all is part of the film’s joy as we see how many plates the superb cast and their on-form director can keep spinning and for how long. She’s Funny That Way recalls the same belly laughs that used to come from Woody Allen comedies (before he got his Europass) or, for that matter, the Bogdanovich of the What’s Up, Doc? years. What’s more, in its wittiness and smarts it’s light years from the juvenile gross-out comedy which – with a few noble exceptions – are as funny as an inept colonoscopy. Comedian Richard Lewis and Cybil Shepard are superb as Izzy’s constantly fighting parents, Will Forte entertains as Jane’s put-upon boyfriend and brief cameos from famous faces give this the feel of one of those mammoth studio productions.
The seasoned comic performers – Aniston, Hahn, Ifyans and Wilson et al – grab their parts with both hands and squeeze there for all their worth. Meanwhile, British actress Poots goes full Brooklyn and more than holds her own, proving herself a dab hand at comedy in the process. This is the second backstage comedy to hit this year’s festival, but whereas Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) was a revolutionary broadside of satire, innovation and ideas, She’s Funny That Way is screwball comedy in a much more traditional sense. It may be stuck in the past, with its hoary clichés about the call girl with the heart of gold and the incurable romantic, but the whole thing fizzes with such joie de vivre that the anachronisms only add to its overwhelming charm.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.