They All Laughed ★★★½

2017 movie viewings, #111. To be fair, Peter Bogdanovich's supposedly disastrous 1981 production They All Laughed is actually no different whatsoever than, say, the '80s work of French New Wave veteran and Bogdanovich favorite Eric Rohmer; but as anyone who has sat through one of those films can tell you, '80s Rohmer is an acquired taste, and a big reason they have as good a reputation as they do is because they were released with tiny budgets in an obscure market where expectations were almost nil, allowing them to have only cultish intellectual followings yet still be considered a success.

Not so for Bogdanovich, a former museum academe (in the early 1960s he curated revival film festivals of John Ford and Howard Hawks at New York's Museum of Modern Art, kickstarting their critical reappraisals) who eventually decided to try his hand at filmmaking himself, developing a reputation as a golden boy when his first three films (1971's The Last Picture Show, 1972's What's Up, Doc?, and 1973's Paper Moon) were all hugely popular Oscar winners. Unfortunately he spent the rest of the '70s squandering this goodwill, doubling down on the artsy pretentiousness, creating ill-advised productions centered around women he was sleeping with, bringing a lawsuit against Universal that made him persona non grata among many studios, and developing a "bad boy" arrogance about his own talent that several Hollywood veterans characterized as the worst ego in the entire industry.

As a result, Bogdanovich had a whole lot going against him as he entered the '80s; and what turned out to be just an okay film, whose public reputation could've gone either way, ended up getting known as a debacle which would assure that he would never make such an expensive and high-profile film ever again. Of course, it didn't help that Bogdanovich is trying to play in the Woody Allen sandbox here, in the same years that that director was releasing clearly superior movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan; set in a similar north-of-Houston New York City, it tries to look at the neurotic romantic foibles of a group of upper-middle-class intellectuals but with none of the wit or pacing of Allen's inherently likable films from these same years, and with a bizarre noir-era hardboiled private-eye tale artificially tacked on to the top of it all, with the detectives even more bizarrely played by the woefully miscast John Ritter and Ben Gazzara. (And the fact that Bogdanovich indulges in some wish-fulfillment here, presenting the schlubby middle-aged Gazzara as a smoldering sex symbol who is constantly having offers of free sex thrust at him from a series of model-beautiful twentysomething women, doesn't help things either.)

All this would've been bad enough, although I don't think would've caused the movie to develop the bitter "unwatchable" label it currently has; but what really sunk this picture was Bogdanovich's messy personal life becoming the bigger headline, turning an only so-so movie into a fabled catastrophe like Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate which had come out just half a year earlier. Because for those who don't know, the 41-year-old Bogdanovich was having an affair at the time with one of the film's stars, the 19-year-old Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten; and when their relationship finally became public, her psychotic ex-boyfriend ended up murdering her and committing suicide in the months between the filming being finished and the movie being released. (The entire sordid affair was eventually dramatized in Bob Fosse's Star 80, which is actually a better film than its own so-so reputation.) The age difference, the nepotism, and the tabloid-worthy details of the murder (Stratten was killed by a shotgun blast point-blank to the face), combined with the actual movie's so-so quality and Hollywood's growing resentment of Bogdanovich, was enough to sink this movie for good; and his career simply never recovered, with his latest (2014's She's Funny That Way) grossing a grand total internationally of $88,000.

So I'm glad I finally watched this, after becoming a fan of his earlier, much more famous films in the last couple of years; but I admit that even though it's not as bad as its reputation has it, I still didn't find it all that great when all is said and done. Your mileage may differ, depending on how much you like talky French New Wave-style films that make sometimes incomprehensible plot choices (but don't they all?); you should definitely give it at least a shot sometime, though, if the film's concept sounds appealing to you.

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