Midway through Peter Bogdanovich's enjoyably giddy romantic comedy, a smitten Manhattan playwright (Will Forte) treats a pretty young woman (British actress Imogen Poots) to a lesson in ancient history, when "women were treated like chattel" but "prostitutes were sacred." You'll have to see the movie to learn whether the scribe knows that he's talking to an aspiring actress who moonlights as a lady of the night. And She's Funny That Way is worth a look even if you flinch at the prospect of spending more time around older dudes frothing over golden-hearted hookers with middle-school vocal pitch. For one thing, the call girl in question, Izzy, is played by Poots with charm and brio marred only by a Brooklyn accent that's cooked within an inch of its life. For another, Izzy, who goes by Glo when working, holds the narrative reins. This is her story, and though I can't defend the worn-out concept — from call girl to movie star with help from sugar dad — she gets to tell it her way. Look and learn, Woody.
Not that Owen Wilson's Arnold, freshly arrived from Los Angeles to direct the playwright's latest effort, is much more than a leerier modification of his addled screenwriter in Allen's Midnight in Paris. We're supposed to find Arnold adorable even though he orders up Glo like pizza for a pre-rehearsal tryst in his hotel room while fielding calls from his family back home. Toggling naughty boy with jolly uncle, Arnold offers Glo $30,000 to follow her bliss. It seems Bogdanovich himself, he says, did something like this, and depending on where you stand on the jaded scale, Arnold is either an unreconstructed cad or a sincere fellow afflicted with the usual Biblical sins. Turns out he has spread his largesse around other credulous damsels — all of which comes to light when Izzy auditions for a plum role opposite Arnold's wife Delta (the excellent Kathryn Hahn) in the play.
The rest is the expected romp around a glammed-up Manhattan while the plot, mirroring the play, trips over Arnold's prior conquests and picks up a well-oiled cast of sinners and sinned-against. Notable among them are Rhys Ifans as a leading man with the hots for Delta and Jennifer Aniston, wearing someone else's hair and pleased as punch for the opportunity to play a nasty therapist with a knack for extravagantly spilling trade secrets where she shouldn't.
Following his early success with The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc?, Bogdanovitch has lurched through the very definition of a checkered career as an actor, Hollywood author and director, some of whose flops have matured into cult movies or critical darlings. Arriving almost 15 years after Bogdanovich's unjustly ignored The Cat's Meow, She's Funny That Way is a trifle. But it's a sweetly nostalgic trifle, especially if you're fond of classic screwball complete with overlapping quippage delivered at breakneck speed. The dizzy script, which is none the worse for having kicked around for years, was written by Bogdanovich with his former wife Louise Stratten. A running joke about squirrels and nuts doesn't have much traction, but it pays sweet homage to a favorite movie by the great Ernst Lubitsch. Bogdanovich has thrown in cameos for buddies and another ex, all of whom you'll be pleased to see whether or not their presence is justified. A fond reference to Breakfast at Tiffany's feels similarly tossed off, but that's part of the movie's raffish charm.
She's Funny That Way comes across as put together with the oh-why-not abandon of a man with not much to lose and an abiding love of Golden Age comedy, whether there remains a market for it or not. What I like about the movie is its seasoned wisdom and kindness about the tragicomic asymmetry of love, or lust, or some combination of the two that, if we're lucky, gets all of us into trouble at some point in our lives. Izzy may be an innocent who "believes in pink, and in kissing a lot," and perhaps as a character she doesn't add up to much more than the sum of male special pleading for the appeal of firm young flesh. But she knows how to look after herself with or without some guy decades her senior running interference, and she's a good soul with a philosophy only a cynic could sneer at. Wherever you're happy, she tells a hack interviewer played by Ileana Douglas, that's your place. Like her, Bogdanovich has knocked about the world of ambition. Like her, too, he may have arrived at the conclusion that playing in his own sandbox is the tops.