“She’s Funny That Way” opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and is available on iTunes and video-on-demand. R, 1:33, two stars out of four.
Be wary of a great cast. That might seem counterintuitive — more good actors should make for a better movie, right? — but salting the credits with too many big names runs the risk of a celebrity pile-up on screen. That’s what happened with, for example, George Clooney’s “Monuments Men,” where the A-listers were so polite in making sure they didn’t outshine each other that they forgot to make a good movie.
In the case of “She’s Funny That Way,” the cast’s ulterior motive is obvious; the actors wanted to make a movie with Peter Bogdanovich. The auteur behind “The Last Picture Show” and “What’s Up, Doc?” hasn’t made a feature film since 2000’s “The Cat’s Meow” (which was pretty good). So Bogdanovich was able to get Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte, Kathryn Hahn, Imogen Poots, Cybil Shepherd, Richard Lewis and more. When Michael Shannon shows up for two lines as “Cop #2,” you know something’s up here.
What’s surprising and disappointing is all that great talent, not to mention Bogdanovich’s, can’t inject much life into this piffle of a screwball comedy. While there are some amusing moments and decent enough performances, to call this comedy featherweight would be an insult to the substantiveness of feathers.
Poots tells the story in flashback, putting on a thick Noo Yawk accident as hooker-with-a-heart-of-well-you-know Izzy. Izzy’s latest client is nice-guy theatrical director Arnold (Wilson), who takes such pity on the sweet gal that he offers her 30 grand to quit the streets and pursue her acting dreams.
Which she does the next day, walking right into the auditions for Arnold’s next play. The catch is that Arnold’s wife Delta (Hahn) is the lead in that play, along with her ex Seth (Ifans). As the play’s screenwriter (Forte) takes a shine to Izzy, Arnold has to try to keep his wife from finding out about their previous arrangement. Somewhere in there is Aniston as a therapist who seems to delight in messing up her patients’ lives, and Austin Pendleton as a regular client of Izzy’s who can’t let her quit the biz.
If that sounds like fizzy fun, it’s more fizzle, as the characters dutifully go through their paces, the scenes lacking much energy and the dialogue lacking a much-needed spark. Bogdanovich is a noted film historian and raconteur, and we eventually learn that the best speech in the film has been swiped from an older, better movie. Left to his own devices, Bogdanovich and co-writer Louise Stratten come up with groaners like “Everybody here’s so curious! It must be the weather.” “Curiousity reigns.” (A pun, Peter?)
“She’s Funny That Way” is not terrible, and Poots is certainly a charmer, and when she delivers the Audrey Hepburn “I believe in pink” speech, she sells it all the way. Bogdanovich was right to build a movie around her; he just needs to build a better movie. And not wait another 15 years this time.