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Screwball comedy bounds back into modern movies

Amid "Straight Outta Compton" and "Mission: Impossible," screwball comedy makes an unexpected resurgence

We have a couple of screws loose this month at the movies. First there's the wide release of the new Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig collaboration, "Mistress America," an intriguing modern variation on screwball high comedy of an earlier time. It's not high-velocity slapstick screwball; rather, it owes a little bit to Philip Barry ("Holiday") and a little bit to John Hughes, and even Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild," though without the part where Ray Liotta is trying to kill Jeff Daniels.

Then there's "She's Funny That Way," arriving next week for an Aug. 28-Sept. 3 run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

This is director and co-writer Peter Bogdanovich's first theatrical feature in 13 years. It's also his latest throwback to an era more accommodating to the mechanics of screwball, and door-slamming, hotel-corridor-dashing farce born of Feydeau on the stage and Ernst Lubitsch in the movies. The working title of the script, which Bogdanovich and his then-wife Louise Stratton began writing in 2000 — another era in itself — was "Squirrels to the Nuts," quoting a lovely bit of dialogue from Lubitsch's own "Cluny Brown" (1946). Baumbach and Wes Anderson ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") served as executive producers and helped their unofficial mentor Bogdanovich get it into production.

In the scheme of things it's a blip, destined (by its marketing budget and near-simultaneous video-on-demand dump) for a minuscule impact on the moviegoing culture. And it's pretty creaky. Nonetheless: Let us now praise Bogdanovich for his early stylistic tributes to the great directors he loved as a critic before he jumped the fence and became a director himself. He doesn't get enough credit.

When people talk today about movies that take them back to the good old days, often they're citing the work of directors like Bogdanovich, whose best work was made in better times for maverick directors with taste. These films often were marinated in other films and the juices of the studio era heyday.

By the time Bogdanovich made his second feature, "The Last Picture Show," in 1971, Hollywood had spent much of the previous decade recycling silent film aesthetics into grandiose showcases for widescreen mayhem and big-budget nostalgia. Projects such as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963), "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" (1965) and, more interestingly, Blake Edwards' bloated but engaging "The Great Race" (1965) paid tribute to the great comics of old, while stretching out their running times to the then-fashionable road show attraction parameters.

Compared to these elephants, Bogdanovich's third and extremely popular feature, "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) sprinted like a greyhound. When it came out, many quibbled about its conscious and unfashionable attempt to recapture the screwball comedy spirit. The film didn't wear its influences lightly. Ryan O'Neal, not entirely comfortable, was costumed and directed to be a cross between Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby" and Harold Lloyd in everything. But O'Neal's co-star, Barbra Streisand, is hilarious and completely her own fast-talking, carrot-chomping maniac, a human Bugs Bunny. "I went to a lot of movies, mostly," says Streisand's Judy Maxwell, the instigator of the craziness, explaining what she did in college. Truly this was a heroine after Bogdanovich's heart.

I saw that film when I was 11, and loved it. (It was one of the biggest hits that year, behind "The Godfather" and "The Poseidon Adventure.") Having Streisand and newcomer Madeline Kahn and character actors ranging from Austin Pendleton to Kenneth Mars to Liam Dunn in the same ensemble? Try finding a roster like that today.

Today it's mainly remembered for its slapstick chase finale set among the hills of San Francisco. Compared with the badly timed, effects-dependent, eerily unfunny equivalent in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," a film that may still be grinding on, the 10-minute whoop-de-do in "What's Up, Doc?" is a catalog of escalating visual gags that actually work. Bogdanovich once claimed that 25 percent of his $4 million production budget went to the big chase, which on paper sounds like trouble; when stunts and expensive sight gags take precedent over character, it's often a sign of desperation. But Bogdanovich does so many things right in that extended sequence. He knows where to put the camera, and how long to let the shots run. There's no conventional musical score in the picture, nudging us when to laugh or gasp. It's derivative, sure, but the technique is immaculate.

There are shots, such as O'Neal running alongside Streisand pedaling a bicycle delivery truck downhill, that you simply wouldn't see today. Why? Because it's simple looking, yet it required serious precision in the playing and the framing. (The long, unerringly timed takes are even more prevalent in Bogdanovich's 1973 follow-up, "Paper Moon," which features O'Neal's best-ever performance from his movie star heyday.)

Much of "What's Up, Doc?" takes place in hotel rooms and corridors, so there's a throwback-to-a-throwback feeling with "She's Funny That Way," which also sends its characters in and out of hotel rooms and hallways. Bogdanovich and Stratton's script, originally earmarked for John Ritter and Cybill Shepherd, eventually went before the cameras starring Owen Wilson as a beleaguered, adulterous theater director in rehearsals for a Broadway play, and Imogen Poots as the call girl aspiring to be an actress.

"Hoary" is one word for the setup and the character archetypes (or stereotypes) at play here. There are amusing throwaway moments, and Jennifer Aniston playing Manhattan's edgiest, most hostile therapist certainly helps, but the whole thing feels slightly off.

It's apples and oranges, but Baumbach's "Mistress America" is far more successful at evoking the blithe contraptions that came with blissful regularity in the 1930s and '40s. The relationship, first sweet, then sour, then sweet-and-sour, between wide-eyed college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) and her glamorous gadfly of a future stepsister (Greta Gerwig) feels both old-fashioned and new-fashioned. Like several of the better-known screwball comedies of the 1930s early '40s ("The Awful Truth," "Bringing Up Baby," "The Lady Eve"), the major characters flee Manhattan for plot complication and eventual resolution in stuffy yet bucolic Connecticut.

Baumbach may not have the temperament for precisely timed visual jokes, even though he's a wonderful director (and an even better writer); the Connecticut scenes never quite click in that Swiss watch way. He's more into verbal slapstick, the way words fly out of people's mouths and puncture their own pretensions. "Must we document ourselves all the time? Must we?" Gerwig's Brooke protests at one point, as someone cellphone-videos her making out with some guy on a couch at a party. It sounds like an earnest protest, but the way Gerwig performs the line, with a big smile and a ta-da! exuberance, you know Brooke half-craves the documentation.

At its best, Baumbach locates in "Mistress America" what the obsessive formalist Wes Anderson has achieved in his own career peaks, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" among them. There's a sense of pride in knowing who to steal from, and when, then finding ways to weave the influences of filmmakers past into a new tapestry. It's what Bogdanovich did. Sometimes his homages didn't work, as with the eternal '70s punching bag "At Long Last Love." But in that farrago, Bogdanovich still managed to deliver a perfectly staged minutelong take of Madeline Kahn, alone, singing a plaintive rendition of Cole Porter's title tune. Today that shot doesn't look like an homage; it simply looks elegant, and right.

Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.

Twitter @phillipstribune

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