It's been said that the filmmakers of the "New Hollywood" of the '70s (more than 40 years later, has no one come up with a better name?) were the first generation of American directors who grew up as cinephiles. Some, like Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, knew all about the films of Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks and Welles, delivered via The Late, Late Show and revival houses, and filtered through the auteurist criticism of Andrew Sarris and the latest works of the French New Wave. Others, like Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme, worked their way up by toiling on the low-budget productions of Roger Corman. Peter Bogdanovich, despite having done all of those things, was something of an anomaly in the New Hollywood crowd. He didn't just know the films of Ford and Welles: He hung out with the famous directors themselves. And he didn't just pay homage to the styles and genres of the studio era; his films were painstaking recreations of them. He made Fordian melodramas, Hawksian comedies, Welles-like costume dramas and Lubitsch-like farces with an assured disregard for the trends and concerns of the present day.
Somewhere along the line Bogdanovich became a celebrity, known as much for his talk-show appearances, his Old Hollywood friends and his offscreen relationship with Cybill Shepherd as for his films. After a trio of box-office successes, his films became more esoterically shaped by his cinephiliac background. After the failure of both 1975's At Long Last Love, an underrated farce in which Shepherd and Burt Reynolds sing Cole Porter tunes, and 1976's Nickelodeon, a comedy about the early days of the film industry, Bogdanovich's love of Hollywood's past effectively isolated him from its present. Though he has continued to direct films in the four decades since and serve as a mentor to younger filmmakers (two of whom, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, are among the producers of his latest work), he's probably best known today for his recurring role on The Sopranos.
She's Funny That Way is not a complete return to form for Bogdanovich, but it takes him back to the comfortable Hollywood-filtered climate of his best work. Written by the director and his ex-wife Louise Stratten, it's a broad comedy that wears its Lubitschian inclinations proudly (and openly: it ends with a clip from Cluny Brown that is quoted throughout the film).
Told in flashback by Izzy Patterson, also know as "Glowgirl" (Imogen Poots), a former-prostitute-turned-actress being interviewed about her career, it's a comedy filled with jealousy, mistaken identities, rotating lovers and trapped suitors hiding in bathrooms. Owen Wilson plays Arnold, a Broadway director with a fondness for hiring call girls and financing their ambitions to enter other careers. On the set of his new play, Arnold's most recent beneficiary — Izzy — shows up for an audition and immediately entrances the playwright. The playwright's girlfriend happens to be Izzy's psychiatrist (Jennifer Aniston, whose very strange performance may be the best thing in the film). Throw in a private detective searching for the now-retired Glowgirl on behalf of an obsessed judge — also one of Aniston's clients — and let them all run around for roughly 90 minutes. It's a messy film, but also frequently very funny, mostly thanks to the cast doing their best with relatively limited means.
The cast willingly embrace the contrivances of the script — a necessity for this kind of film — but whereas Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal were willing to underplay and adopt acting styles reminiscent of '30s stars in Bogdanovich's earlier films, the performers here sometimes clash with the deliberately retrograde script. Perhaps Bogdanovich intended for the film to seem more contemporary than classical — it's hard to keep Owen Wilson from acting like Owen Wilson — but with the theatrical setting, New York locations and a call girl with a Brooklyn accent, the viewer is less likely to be reminded of Lubitsch than of more recent Woody Allen films such as Bullets Over Broadway
Unfortunately, aside from Aniston's deadpan performance as the narcissist shrink, the more modern elements are so structurally dominant that the farcical plot simply dwindles away. Worse yet, most of them — including the redundant interview segments and a climactic cameo by a Famous American Director — simply fall as flat as the film's unimaginative title. Ultimately, there's a lack of confidence to the film, a sense that its classical comedy style had to be buried behind fancy trappings that neither interest nor please the director. Under them, there's a reasonably funny film that should have been given a little more room to come alive.