‘Squirrels to Nuts’ Review: The Director’s Cut of Peter Bogdanovich’s Latest Feature
The late Peter Bogdanovich’s last dramatic feature was a goofy comedy with the original title “Squirrels to the Nuts.” His producers mutilated him, and in the hope of making the best of a bad situation, Bogdanovich himself participated in his mutilation. The film was released in 2014 as ‘She’s Funny Like That’, but there was no way to know the extent of the changes made to the film – until now. In 2020, a videotape of Bogdanovich’s own cut of the film, under its first title, found on eBay, was bought by film scholar James Kenney, a longtime enthusiast of Bogdanovich’s films, and was prepared for release by Bogdanovich himself. “Squirrels to the Nuts”, which will be screened at MOMA until April 5, is in some ways a big improvement on “She’s Funny Like That.” In other ways, however, it’s a demonstration of the limitations of the cinematic styles of which Bogdanovich was a latter-day master.
The story of both films is the same – and it reflects outdated attitudes, as well as cliched comedic conventions. A theater and film 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 an alias, 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 give up sex work and pursue her stated dream of becoming an actress. The next day, she auditions for a lead role in a play which, coincidentally, is the one he directs. They hide their knowledge; she passes the audition and gets the role, that of a call-girl. But another skein of coincidences causes a whirlwind of misunderstandings, stemming from the relationship between 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 is obsessed with her feet and hires a detective (George Morfogen) to follow her; and Arnold’s wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn), who stars in the play, as does an actor named Seth (Rhys Ifans), an internationally acclaimed idol. Meanwhile, across New York, Arnold continues to meet other women, former sex workers whose dreams he also funded.
There’s no essential difference between the two films in terms of basic narrative: they’re both horror stories disguised as goofy comedies. The tired attitudes and tropes on which both movies depend turn out, when viewed from the right angle, to be marks of mischief, and it’s up to the viewer to find that angle. (The antiquated aspect of the film is openly announced by the original title itself: “From squirrels to nuts” is a replica of the last completed feature film by the great comedian Ernst Lubitsch, “Cluny Brown”, from 1946, which is explicitly referenced in both versions.) Arnold is a pathological liar plagued by a sexual obsession; his White Knight Syndrome suggests that the opposite of sadism is not masochism but benevolence, or the infliction of advantage in order to seek sexual arousal through power, control, and dominance. No sooner does Izzy leave the sex work field to become an actress than she finds herself, in fact, on Josh’s casting couch – and, although he comes off as a sincere guy and she seems to like it too, the power dynamics are grim. recalling the one she had left behind. Both films are antique, frenzied visions of the sexual depredations, power games and obscene excess of money that provide the entertainment industry with much of its behind-the-scenes drama and the art itself. with abundant material.
The differences are in length (“She’s Funny That Way” is shorter) and dramatic form. “Squirrels to the Nuts” unfolds chronologically, from Arnold’s arrival in New York to the opening of the play and its aftermath, while “She’s Funny That Way” is constructed as flashbacks of scenes from 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, as Izzy is the main character in “She’s Funny That Way”; Arnold is the most important character in her memories, but only because it was her plan (and obsession) that made her something of a public figure. (Also, “Squirrels to the Nuts” pays much more attention to the judge, who is defined solely by the relentless, ruinous power of his obsession; Bogdanovich seems sympathetic to his maniacal pursuit of gratification.)
Strangely, it’s “Squirrels to the Nuts” that has a more conventional happy ending, while “She’s Funny That Way” – the edited version made at the producers’ request – offers a darker, barely celebratory ending. For “She’s Funny Like That”, Izzy is portrayed as a movie buff who lived with stars in her eyes, who describes her life in terms of classic Hollywood movies and their celebrities. (“She’s Funny Like That” brings Quentin Tarantino in at the end for a cinephile cameo of dramatic significance.) But in both movies, Izzy is also a living parody of a working-class Noo Yawker, a stereotype whose l exaggerated accent is his most important. trait. In “Squirrels to the Nuts,” Bogdanovich dodges judgment: as corrupt as the world of film and theater is, the magic they produce, it seems, is real. The focus in “She’s Funny That Way” remains narrower but clearer; there, restlessness and confusion, obsession and manipulation, often lead to disappointment, frustration, recrimination.
As a goofy comedy, “She’s Funny Like That” is a little less goofy. In “Squirrels to the Nuts”, Bogdanovich has the space and the time to develop at length and in detail the intertwined bonds of his characters. He develops an aspect of his vision of the world, of his artistic cosmology, which energizes the 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 connects him to another great ancient and contemporary filmmaker: Eric Rohmer.)
In “Squirrels to the Nuts”, the series of strange coincidences begins with the very first scene, that of Arnold’s arrival at the airport. (His limo driver is played by Graydon Carter, then editor of vanity lounge.) Throughout the film, the hidden and unconscious affinities between the characters are revealed by their fortuitous arrival in the same place at the same time, whether they realize it or not. In the film’s central scene – by far his best, and the one that offers the strongest and most poignant reminder of Bogdanovich’s unique and powerful artistry – all of the main characters show up at a restaurant and unleash a frenzy of physical comedy. loud but precise. . In “She’s Funny Like That”, the theme is less present in the drama but is hammered home on screen when Izzy states, “I like to think that coincidence is a way of reminding us that there is someone up there with a master plan.” So she says; yet the line comes across as hollow, deceptively spiritual, compared to the secular metaphysics of Bogdanovich’s earlier work.
The emptiness of both films goes beyond metaphysics. Bogdanovich started his career as one of the crucial film critics and programmers. In the early sixties, when he was in his early twenties, he was hosting series at MOMA dedicated to Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, at a time when the very conception of them as major artists was still rare and controversial. When his career took off, he was pushing his own neoclassical tendencies, his reproduction and revision of Hollywood studio-era forms and styles, in crazy new directions. In “Squirrels to the Nuts” and “She’s Funny That Way”, Bogdanovich’s practical sense of goofy comedy, in imagery, characters, and performance, did not advance; it seems to be borrowed. Neither the experience of its characters nor the images in which they are depicted seem taken from actual life, from the modern world at all.
Both “Squirrels to the Nuts” and “She’s Funny That Way” are classic “late movies,” works that reflect the abstraction of career themes and the retrospective view of a longtime, older director. In this case, they also reflect the many years and hard experiences that separated Bogdanovich from his greater work. The critical damnation of his most ambitious film, “At Long Last Love,” exiled him from the ranks of New Hollywood writers who could rely on studio funding for their personal projects. The tabloid-style gossip fodder of his leaving his wife and creative partner, Polly Platt, for Cybill Shepherd, whom he’d directed on “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 ex-husband. Attempting to self-distribute this film, Bogdanovich filed for bankruptcy. In his Hollywood life, he lived hard. This sad retrospective – a sense of banal acceptance of reckless behavior in the milieu in which he worked, of his own reckless debauchery in the way he lived while doing his best work, of the emotional and professional wreckage that eventually resulted – becomes an ironically comedic treatment in both versions of his latest fiction film. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, her favorite version is the one with the happy ending. The one imposed on him is getting closer to the truth.