Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed has a checkered history. Released in 1981, it's not very well known despite being considered the last starring role of screen legend Audrey Hepburn. It's also the final film of Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy Playmate who was murdered by a jealous husband shortly after filming wrapped (as chronicled in Star 80). This sad turn is usually blamed for They All Laughed's failure to find a solid audience. The studio who financed the picture shelved the project, thinking that people would be turned off by the off-screen tragedy. Bogdanovich, who had already blown the cachet he'd earned on The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, sank his own money into distributing it himself, a disastrous move that took a toll on his life and career.
Despite the interesting backstory, it doesn't mask the fact that the bigger problem with They All Laughed isn't what happened to Stratten, but the fact that the movie is extremely uneven and often not very good.
The plot of the film revolves around a New York detective agency that specializes in following the wives of jealous husbands around Manhattan. Currently, the detectives are on two cases. Charles (John Ritter) is tailing Dolores (Stratten), while John (Ben Gazzara) is keeping his eye on Angela (Hepburn) and Arthur (Blaine Novak, also one of the film's producers) bounces between both. Both Charles and John have decided to breach their professional code of conduct and engage their quarry, whom they have fallen in love with. Charles quite literally bumps into Dolores at a roller-skating rink, and John takes a more brazen approach. He just walks up to Angela and introduces himself.
Bogdanovich shoots for two different tones in They All Laughed. The John Ritter story is catered to the actor's exceptional talents as a physical comedian, and his pursuit of Dolores is styled after classic screwball comedies. Stratten is kind of a non-presence on screen, so when Arthur is off doing other things, Bogdanovich gives Ritter a second foil. Colleen Camp plays a fast-talking country singer, Christy, who is tired of being jilted by John, and so she puts the moves on Charles, presumably to make the other man jealous. She pretty quickly gets wise to where Charles' feelings really lie and pushes him together with Dolores, which is the closest we get to an explanation as to how the blonde manages to fall in love with the doof. The rapport between Ritter and Stratten is pretty tepid, and despite Ritter's usual slapstick (the gag where he gets a swizzle stick up his nose is one hilarious throwaway that is better than the main business), the story never really takes off. Charles and the fast-talking Christy would have made a better romantic pair, but she instead chases after Jose (Hepburn's real-life son Sean Ferrer), a Latin playboy whose identity is never really explained.
The second story is much, much better. Gazzara and Hepburn play two mature people who are tired of the constant chase, of reaching for love and never capturing anything substantial. Their patter is much more restrained, and there is a genuine chemistry between them. It's a pleasant change of pace to see a relationship between two older people that has real passion without resorting to Cocoon-level pandering. Both Gazzara and Hepburn are fantastic, and when they gaze into each other's eyes, the affection passing between them becomes visible. (Sadly, not even Hepburn, who is still radiant and beautiful in the movie, could withstand 1980s fashion. Bogdanovich should be horsewhipped for letting her wear those ludicrous glasses.)
Unfortunately, all the running around the city the various players do and the constant criss-crossing of the stories grows tiresome. That aspect of the script comes off as busy work, a gimmick to hang the romance on. Every time Bogdanovich cuts away from his older lovers to chase down the incomprehensible plot with Stratten, it's an unwelcome distraction. Thankfully, even when the film is off course, we can enjoy They All Laughed's other bright spot: the location shooting on the streets of New York, a time capsule of a period when the city was still strange and populated by wild characters.
Peter Bogdanovich says They All Laughed is his favorite movie because of how it captures a particular time of his life. That may be so, but that personal experience doesn't necessarily come across on the screen. The director doesn't play enough to his film's strengths, instead trying to cram in too much. Watch it for the romance that blooms, and ignore the love that fizzles.
The discussion with Anderson is excellent, as both men have a strong handle on their craft and get a real dialogue going. Some of the information Bogdanovich gives surfaces again on his commentary, but there is so much more to be told, it doesn't really matter. He covers anecdotes from the shooting, explains how shots are put together, points out the real New York landmarks, elaborates on the struggles to bring it to the screen, etc. Given how personal the movie is, the added audio track gives the auteur a superb opportunity to share his impressive understanding of film while also shedding some light on the inspiration his life and the lives of his actors gave him when writing the script. His narration is a surprise pleasure.
Bogdanovich also mentions at least one added scene in what he refers to as the "director's cut" for this version. The sticker on the package also boasts that there is restored footage. I haven't found any added information that speaks to how much more has been changed.