The late Peter Bogdanovich’s last dramatic feature was a screwball comedy with the original title “Squirrels to the Nuts.” Its producers mangled it, and, in the hope of making the best of a bad situation, Bogdanovich himself participated in its mangling. The film was released, in 2014, as “She’s Funny That Way,” but there was no way of knowing the extent of the alterations to the film—until now. In 2020, a videotape of Bogdanovich’s own cut of the film, under its first title, turned up on eBay, was purchased by the film scholar James Kenney, a longtime devotee of Bogdanovich’s films, and was prepared for release by Bogdanovich himself. “Squirrels to the Nuts,” which will be screened at MOMA through April 5th, is in some ways a vast improvement on “She’s Funny That Way.” In other respects, though, it’s a display of the limits of the cinematic styles of which Bogdanovich was a latter-day master.
The story of both movies is the same—and it reflects outdated attitudes, and also clichéd comedic conventions. A theatre and movie director named Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) comes to New York to direct a play. Right after checking into his hotel, he calls an escort service and—under a pseudonym—hires a sex worker named Izzy Patterson (Imogen Poots). After having sex with her, he offers her thirty thousand dollars (cash in a suitcase) to abandon sex work and pursue her stated dream of becoming an actress. The next day, she auditions for a lead role in a play—which, by pure coincidence, is the one he’s directing. They conceal their acquaintance; she nails the audition and gets the part—that of a call girl. But a further skein of coincidences provokes a whirlwind of misunderstandings, arising from connections among Izzy’s therapist, Jane (Jennifer Aniston); the playwright, Josh (Will Forte), who falls in love with Izzy; a judge (Austin Pendleton), one of Izzy’s clients, who’s obsessed with her feet and hires a detective (George Morfogen) to follow her; and Arnold’s wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn), who’s co-starring in the play, as is an actor named Seth (Rhys Ifans), an internationally famous heartthrob. Meanwhile, throughout New York, Arnold keeps running into other women—former sex workers whose dreams he’d similarly financed.
There’s no essential difference between the two movies in terms of the core narrative: they’re both horror stories masquerading as screwball comedies. The tired attitudes and tropes that both movies depend on are—when considered from the right angle—revealed to be marks of misdeeds, and the onus is on the viewer to find that angle. (The outmoded aspect of the movie is openly announced by the original title itself: “Squirrels to the Nuts” is a line from the great comedy director Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed feature, “Cluny Brown,” from 1946, which is explicitly referenced in both versions.) Arnold is a pathological liar in the grip of a sexual obsession; his White Knight Syndrome suggests that the opposite of sadism isn’t masochism but benevolence, or the infliction of a benefit in order to seek sexual arousal by way of power, control, and dominance. No sooner does Izzy leave the field of sex work to pursue acting than she finds herself, in effect, on Josh’s casting couch—and, though he presents himself as a sincere guy and she seems to like him, too, the power dynamic is grimly reminiscent of the one she’d left behind. Both movies are antic and frenetic visions of the sexual depredations, power plays, and obscene surfeit of money that provide the entertainment business with much of its behind-the-scenes drama and the art itself with ample material.
The differences are in length (“She’s Funny That Way” is shorter) and in dramatic form. “Squirrels to the Nuts” runs chronologically, from Arnold’s arrival in New York to the opening of the play and its aftermath, whereas “She’s Funny That Way” is built as flashbacks from scenes of an interview with Izzy; the interview segments frame, punctuate, and interrupt the action throughout. “Squirrels to the Nuts” strikes a balance between Izzy and Arnold, whereas Izzy is the main character of “She’s Funny That Way”; Arnold is the most prominent character in her recollections, but only because it’s his scheme (and his idée fixe) that has made her something of a public figure. (Also, “Squirrels to the Nuts” gives much more attention to the judge, who is defined solely by the relentless and ruinous power of his obsession; Bogdanovich seems sympathetic to his manic pursuit of gratification.)
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Strangely, it’s “Squirrels to the Nuts” that has a more conventional happy ending, whereas “She’s Funny That Way”—the revised version made at the behest of producers—offers a grimmer, hardly celebratory outcome. For “She’s Funny That Way,” Izzy is portrayed as a movie buff who lived with stars in her eyes, who describes her life in terms of classic Hollywood films and their celebrities. (“She’s Funny That Way” brings on Quentin Tarantino at the end for a cinephilic cameo of dramatic import.) But in both films Izzy is also a living parody of a working-class Noo Yawker, a stereotype whose overdone accent is her most substantial character trait. In “Squirrels to the Nuts,” Bogdanovich hedges his judgment: as corrupted as the movie and theatre world are, the magic that they produce, it suggests, is real. The focus in “She’s Funny That Way” remains narrower yet clearer; there, the turmoil and the trouble, the obsession and the manipulation, often lead to disappointment, frustration, recrimination.
As a screwball comedy, “She’s Funny That Way” is a little less screwy. In “Squirrels to the Nuts,” Bogdanovich has the space and the time to develop the intertangled connections of his characters at length and in detail. Here, he develops an aspect of his world view, of his artistic cosmology, which energizes the very best of his films, including “What’s Up, Doc?,” “Daisy Miller,” and “At Long Last Love”: the conversion of chance into destiny. (It’s a theme that links him with another great elder filmmaker and contemporary: Éric Rohmer.)
In “Squirrels to the Nuts,” the series of weird coincidences starts in the very first scene, of Arnold’s arrival at the airport. (His limo driver is played by Graydon Carter, then the editor of Vanity Fair.) Throughout the film, the hidden and unconscious affinities among the characters are revealed by their serendipitous arrival at the same place at the same time, whether they notice it or not. In the movie’s central scene—by far its best, and the one that offers the strongest and most poignant reminder of Bogdanovich’s unique and powerful artistry—all the main characters turn up at a restaurant and unleash a raucous, yet precise, physical-comedy frenzy. In “She’s Funny That Way,” the theme is less present in the drama but is hammered onto the screen when Izzy declares, “I like to think that coincidence is a way of reminding us that there’s somebody up there with a master plan.” So she says; yet the line comes off as hollow, falsely spiritual, compared with the secular metaphysics of Bogdanovich’s earlier work.
The hollowness of both films goes beyond metaphysics. Bogdanovich started his career as one of the crucial film critics and programmers. In the early nineteen-sixties, when he was in his early twenties, he organized series at MOMA devoted to Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, at a time when the very concept of them as major artists was still rare and controversial. When his career blew up, he was pushing his own neoclassical tendencies, his replication and revision of the forms and styles of studio-era Hollywood, into wild new directions. In both “Squirrels to the Nuts” and “She’s Funny That Way,” Bogdanovich’s practical sense of screwball comedy, in images, character, and performance, hasn’t advanced; it appears to be borrowed. Neither the experience of his characters nor the images in which they’re depicted seem drawn from current lives, from the modern world at all.
“Squirrels to the Nuts” and “She’s Funny That Way” are both classic “late films,” works that reflect the abstraction of career-long themes and the retrospective view of a longtime and elder director. In this case, they also reflect the many years and the hard experiences that separated Bogdanovich from his greatest work. The critical damnation of his most ambitious film, “At Long Last Love,” exiled him from the ranks of New Hollywood auteurs who could count on their personal projects being financed by studios. The tabloid-style gossip fodder of his leaving his wife and creative partner, Polly Platt, for Cybill Shepherd, whom he’d directed in “The Last Picture Show,” didn’t help (and he knew it). In 1980, his partner Dorothy Stratten, whom he directed in “They All Laughed,” was murdered by her estranged husband. Attempting to self-distribute that film, Bogdanovich spent himself into bankruptcy. In his Hollywood life, he lived hard. That rueful retrospect—a sense of the commonplace acceptance of heedless behavior in the milieu where he worked, of his own reckless profligacy in the way he lived while he was doing his best work, of the emotional and professional wreckage that ultimately resulted—gets an ironically comedic treatment in both versions of his last fiction film. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, his preferred version is the one with the happy ending. The one that was forced on him comes closer to the truth.