Review: ‘She’s Funny That Way’ is a creaky throwback comedy with a charming cast

VENICE – Your enjoyment of dodgy comedy “She's Funny That Way” will depend hugely on your personal tolerance for coincidence as plot mechanic. How many coincidences need to occur before the characters might as well start saying “a wizard did it” by way of explaining the wherefores of the plot? What's your personal tipping point? Perhaps your answer will depend on genre. Even in sci-fi or fantasy, “a wizard did it” is still a pretty poor explanation unless the wizard has a satisfying motive. In a more realistic genre, the greater the number of coincidences, the greater the strain on audience credulity. The genre of farce, though broadly realistic (there are usually no wizards), is of course often borderline fantastical in terms of the believability of people's behavior and the frequency with which coincidence craps all over the characters' hopes and dreams. “She's Funny That Way” leans heavily on this creaky genre convention until it finally gives way and collapses.

But let's start with what works. Jennifer Aniston plays an unbearable shrew, but she does so with enormous aplomb, and coaxes genuine laughs from playing the so-so material to the hilt. This is possibly a skill honed on all those years on “Friends” — a great show, but with its fair share of underpowered episodes in later seasons, it functioned like a comedy academy for actors looking to refine the skill of charming a laugh from an audience. Equally, Kathryn Hahn, fresh from being completely excellent in “Parks And Recreation” is the most human of the female characters by some distance.

Most of the male characters feel somewhat shortchanged by their sexist characterization as being almost completely controlled by their penises, but Owen Wilson and Rhys Ifans are always engaging screen presences, even when tackling thin roles. Imogen Poots works hard to make her Brooklyn call girl with a heart of gold come alive, but the character feels like something dreamt up by someone who really enjoys being agreed with — she's such a consistently malleable and grateful and acquiescent and pliable and sweet-natured dream girl; she's the answer to all your insecurities. I couldn't quite put my finger on a nagging familiarity about her until she said the word “tomorrow” — “tomorra” — and I realized she's a bit like if poor orphan Annie grew up and decided to spread a little sunshine in the hotel suites of men who pay for sex. Ah, I seem to have strayed prematurely into what doesn't work. In summary: the cast is excellent. I wish the same could be said for the plot.

Throughout the film, Peter Bogdanovich and Louise Stratten's script piles coincidence on top of coincidence to such an unnerving extent that it feels like there is surely about to be some cosmic reveal to the effect that the whole affair is someone's anxiety dream. Or being stage-managed by an as-yet-unrevealed puppet master, somehow. Or is it… a film within a film? Something like that, maybe? These were all thoughts I experienced while watching the film because I genuinely couldn't understand why the film was pretending that its litany of zany contrivances wasn't impossibly distracting.

See what you think: firstly, call girl/would-be actress Izzy (Imogen Poots) and her client (Wilson) coincidentally meet again a matter of days after a tryst when she coincidentally auditions for a play he is directing (she doesn't appear to have an agent and it's a high profile Broadway play, but whatever). Fine, these things happen. It then turns out the call girl's therapist (Aniston) is coincidentally dating the writer of the the play (Will Forte). Ok. This therapist has another client, a judge (Austin Pendleton) who is coincidentally stalking the call girl. Riiight. The judge has employed a private investigator (George Morfogen) to assist him in his stalking, and the PI coincidentally turns out to be the playwright's father. Nope, sorry. The director, who has a thing for call girls, coincidentally bumps into several previous liaisons, often when he's with his wife (Hahn). Coincidentally, his liaison with Izzy is witnessed by the play's leading man (Ifans). Coincidentally, there is a restaurant scene, where the judge, therapist, call girl, playwright, director and his wife all separately decide to turn up at the same restaurant at the same time on the same night. The depressing thing? That's not an exhaustive list. There's some business with taxis and hotels and yet another call girl (Lucy Punch) whose “English is not so fast” in the mix too.

Sorry, but in what world does this all hang together? Maybe if we were too busy laughing to notice, but the gags aren't quite that good. The cast are so charming that they might have been able to paper over the cracks if their characters had been a little more likable, but as it is, it's really difficult to sit back and enjoy the ride when you can see that the ride is held together with Elastoplast and the wheels are about to come off. I really did try. I love screwball comedy. But you can't just fling paint at a wall and expect it to look like Jackson Pollock. You have to have some sense of the rules in order for breaking them to be thrilling or enjoyable. When you have to resort to vague lines like “her mobile hasn't been working so well lately” to oil the cogs of the plot, it comes as no surprise to learn the film is based on a script that's been knocking around a while and was surely always kind of a throwback.

Much is made of a recurring motif, “squirrels to the nuts”, which was originally going to be the title of the film. It's a quote from 1946 film “Cluny Brown” by Ernst Lubitsch, which in full runs: “Some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels, but if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?” “She's Funny That Way” opens not with the Sinatra number of the same name from which it presumably borrows its title, but with Fred Astaire crooning Irving Berlin's romantic 1935 number “Cheek To Cheek”, and the big reference point for Izzy is Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast At Tiffany's”. It's a film with one foot in the past, and that's not necessarily a criticism, but unless you're actually doing something interesting with your chosen nostalgic framework, it seems like a slightly artificial way to try to induce that Saturday matinee glow.

The filmmakers are at least canny enough to clock that viewers are likely to smell a rat, particularly where believability is concerned, and have therefore inserted pre-roll text stating that “Like most people today, Judy was a cynic and was offended by the slightest hint of fantasy.” Judy turns out to be a journalist type with no soul. Hands up, I guess that makes me Judy, although it's weird that if I'm supposedly offended by the merest hint of fantasy that I'd count among my most loved cultural artifacts “The Wizard Of Oz”, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “The Lord Of The Rings”. Maybe they should have reworded: “disappointed by the strong whiff of badly thought out fantasy.”

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