Being an obsessive filmgoer is something no one else can understand unless they, too, have the disease. To be a movie junkie is to comprehend all the “esoteric” references that others will never get. Throughout his life and in the 1960s specifically, Peter Bogdanovich was just such an inhaler of cinema, ultimately landing a position as a film programmer at the Museum of Modern Art. And, like Truffaut before him, being a critic drove him to the conclusion that he had his own penchant for wanting to direct.
His latest film, She’s Funny That Way, exhibits the kind of encyclopedic knowledge that only a cinephile could possess. Screwball-esque in nature, the narrative centers around oblivious but loveable Izzy Finkelstein (later changed to the more glamorous Isabella Patterson), a call girl with a dream of becoming an actress. In a manner much like the intro to Star Wars, Bogdanovich opens the film with the scrolling script:
“Not too long ago, one of Hollywood’s brightest new stars sat in an empty bar down the street from the old Chinese Theater. She was giving an interview to a reported named Judy. Like most people today, Judy was a cynic and was offended by the slightest hint of fantasy. Not us. We believe in the old saying that the facts should never get in the way of a good yarn.”
From there, we are introduced to the plucky, starry-eyed Isabella (played by Imogen Poots), who earnestly tells her extremely sardonic interviewer, Judy (Illeana Douglas), “I believe in happy endings. It’s the only thing that’s ever made sense to me. I used to lock myself in my room and watch all the oldies on PBS.” Hence, a love of the romantic and whimsical was born in Izzy, who unwittingly embarks on a chance journey with fate that propels her into the spotlight.
In New York to direct a new play by Joshua Fleet (Will Forte), Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson), alias Derek Thomas, requests “Glow” (as Izzy is known for escort service purposes) from a no-nonsense madame named Vickie (Debi Mazar, in a perfect role). The two have a seemingly magical (Izzy’s favorite word) evening together during which Arnold as Derek takes her out to the Indian restaurant of her choosing and then for a carriage ride (a bold scene for Bogdanovich to shoot considering the carriage horse backlash). Izzy is taken enough with him to confess her dream of becoming an actress, which Derek enthusiastically encourages. So encouraging is he, in fact, that he offers to make a deal with her: he’ll give her $30,000 to give up prostitution altogether and pursue her true destiny and then offers her the following motivational speech, to boot (which will be a running plot point throughout the rest of the film, later revealed as a ripoff from a Charles Boyer movie called Cluny Brown–yet again proving Bogdanovich’s wealth of cinematic knowledge):
“Nobody can tell you where your place is. Where is my place? Where is anybody’s place? I’ll tell you where it is. Wherever you’re happy, that’s your place. And happiness is a matter of purely personal adjustment to your environment. In Hyde Park, for instance. 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?”
Grateful for his kindness, Izzy gladly accepts, not aware how much it’s about to change the course of Arnold’s (and many others’) life.
At various points throughout Izzy’s rehashing of how she came to be a Hollywood star, Judy interrupts her with her biting line of questioning, at one point trying to get Izzy to flat out admit she was a hooker. But Izzy refuses to call it anything other than being people’s muse. One man who uses Izzy as a “muse,” Judge Pendergast (Austin Pendleton), can’t get enough of her, developing an obsession that prompts him to hire a gumshoe (a common vocab word in any screwball comedy) to follow her around and call his therapist, Vivian Claremont (Joanna Lumley), who informs everyone that her daughter, Jane (Jennifer Aniston), will be taking over all of her clients while she dries out at a rehab facility in Tuscany (you don’t hear about those every day).
Jane, author of a book called Bitchy Is Beautiful, has no trouble gruffly and bluntly telling her patients what she thinks of them. Incidentally, Izzy is one of her patients by default now that her mother is on sabbatical (a client of Izzy’s gave her unlimited free therapy sessions as a gift, which is why she bothers to go at all). Jane gives her a quick assessment that amounts to: change your name, change your life. Because Izzy calls herself that, she is trying to harden her image, but by going by Isabella, she will soften herself and instantly be taken more seriously. With the session concluded, Isabella decides to audition for the part of, appropriately, call girl in the play Arnold is directing, A Grecian Evening.
Because of her familiarity with the nature of the part, Izzy nails it, much to the dismay of Arnold, who can’t come up with a good reason not to hire her without confessing the whole truth to his wife, Delta Simmons (Kathryn Hahn), who is starring in the play with Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans). Meanwhile, Joshua is fed up with the castrating ways of his girlfriend, Jane (yes, it’s all very intertwined), and decides to make a bold move by asking out Izzy to dinner at an Italian restaurant called Nick’s. Judge Pendergast, too, asks Jane out to the same place the same night after Joshua cancels on her. To typify the height of the screwball comedy genre, Bogdanovich also adds the private detective, Delta and Arnold into the mix at the restaurant, allowing him to showcase a slapstick style with a modern touch.
As the stakes escalate, Izzy’s tale becomes even wilder and more far-fetched sounding to Judy, who is a very facts-oriented journalist and person, coldly pointing out to Izzy regarding the legendary story about Lana Turner’s discovery at Schwab’s Drugstore, “It wasn’t Schwab’s, it was actually a place called Top Hat on Sunset and McCadden. And it wasn’t Mervyn Leroy [who discovered her], it was actually a guy from The Hollywood Reporter. And her name wasn’t even Lana Turner then, it was Judy…actually her real name was Julia. But you knew all that right?” To sum up the entire crux of the film (and what men of Bogdanovich’s era are all about), Izzy counters, “Mm. You know, it doesn’t really have the same magic though.”