Nuts for the Squirrels: Peter Bogdanovich’s SQUIRRELS TO THE NUTS at MOMA

By James Kenney

18 months or so ago, when I first “discovered,” and then delivered to Peter Bogdanovich his definitive version of Squirrels to the Nuts, I couldn’t have imagined a better premiere than this 2022 series of screenings with such receptive audiences at such a tremendous venue, particularly one like the Museum of Modern Art with truly personal meaning to Peter, who curated several series there in the 1960s. I also couldn’t have imagined that Peter would have passed away before he could see the results of his, my, Louise Stratten, Dave Kehr, and everyone else’s efforts to make what unfolded in these past few weeks a reality. But as his unproduced Wait for Me screenplay (a most Bogdanovichian masterwork that should have been greenlit after the proper version of Squirrels was released, and should still be published) indicates, Peter believed in the afterlife and in the possibility of redemption, and I’m sure if there was any possibility, he was there, triumphant in the restoration of, and redemption of, his vision for Squirrels to the Nuts.

Dave Kehr, the curator at MOMA, informed me that despite the post-Covid malaise that has hampered overall film attendance, attendance for the Squirrels run was indeed terrific, and unlike the notorious one-off screening the producers gave for Squirrels in 2014 that lead to it being disemboweled, audiences in 2022 never failed to respond. The film plays, restored to its proper dimensions dreamt up by cowriters Bogdanovich and Stratten, and it plays magnificently on the big screen– a film doesn’t have to be a Michael Bay spectacle to warrant the theatrical experience.

So many sublime moments completely missing from the crippled 2015 release She’s Funny That Way – George Morfogen’s “Follow that Buggy!”; Owen Wilson’s disbelief at seeing Rhys Ifans on both the cover and back cover of Esquire at an airport newsstand; Imogen Poots’s “Bye now! P.S. – I’m movin’ out!” to her grating parents upon landing a role; the Will Forte/ Austin Pendleton sequence and its “prewar building”; and, of course, the Sardi’s party sequence containing the entirety of Stephen Dorff and Joanna Lumley’s performances, and the lovely, self-aware final gag of Kathryn Hahn turning to Owen and incredulously saying “You mean, after all that, it wasn’t even original?” regarding the now-beautifully set-up and paid-off Cluny Brown gag, all play terrifically, receiving audible responses from receptive crowds. Squirrels has a different ending than the previously released version, different opening, different character fates, different editing, different chronology, different scoring — and this version, found on eBay and screened at MOMA, is Peter’s only uncompromised cut, the one he wished audiences to experience, not the reshaped-by-committee travesty that snuck out in 2015.

I can’t help but think that this great, idiosyncratic work could break out with proper handling moving forward, that people going in believing in its potential worth will respond to it, whereas a 2013 test audience pulled randomly off the street weaned on Adam Sandler comedies might not know how to respond because things aren’t spelled out in ten-foot tall dayglow letters; while Peter wasn’t making an art film, any film of his is a work of art –he never insults his audience’s intelligence.  As for the issue that apparently caused the original producers the most bewilderment – the Lubitsch-like happenstance of people’s destinies colliding in absurd ways that indicate a god with a wicked sense of humor is guiding from above – the MOMA audiences again and again broke out in knowing laughter at each developing entanglement.  They got the joke, they got the movie, they got its spirit. 

Most heartwarming was the audience reaction at screenings where neither I or Louise or editor Pax Wasserman spoke –I went to several screenings that had no special event attached, and the audience’s adoration never diminished. Not knowing anyone involved was there, they still burst into applause at the end of the film, cheering when Peter’s image appeared in the Sopranos clip on the television at the end. The majority of audiences stayed until the very last moment of the very end credits, entranced by the beautifully edited nighttime New York footage timed to Tom Petty’s “King’s Highway” that now resolves the film, staying until the very last drum-kick of the song.  Peter’s instincts to avoid scoring again prove sound as he got his laughs his way, not pushing the audience with any heavy-handed “whimsical” music added. 

But before I stand accused of just so much hyperbole, let me share actual, legitimate responses from audiences – in a modern world, for better and worse, you can get immediate fan reaction to a work via Twitter and Letterboxd alongside professional reviews.  People are responding terrifically; allow me to share (if anyone wishes their response removed, please let me know –I hope that those who responded positively to the film will have interest in seeing this aggregation): 

The Professionals Speak (Formally and Informally):

Brad Hanford, InReviewOnline

Squirrels to the Nuts breezily reasserts the legacy and artistry of Peter Bogdanovich…  a brilliant and committed artist further exploring the themes and obsessions that defined his career, with… utterly personal directness…Squirrels is undoubtedly an improvement on its theatrical version…Any case that still needs to be made for the artist’s original vision is sealed by the lovely final sequence, bafflingly cut to shreds in She’s Funny That Way, which caps off the romantic roundelays with as perfect a punchline to Bogdanovich’s career as one could hope for.

Josh Bogatin Screenslate:

Bogdanovich handles this constantly expanding series of mistaken identities, absurd coincidences, and badly-kept secrets with complete ease. He often crafts scenes with a circular structure, shifting focus between multiple characters within the span of minutes in order to gracefully connect them in surprising ways. His preference for medium two-shots, paired with his penchant for uninterrupted long takes, elegantly showcases the diverse abilities of his ensemble. From Forte’s gentle, confused shrug to Aniston’s disapproving grimace to Morfogen’s sigh of disbelief, Bogdanovich plays the members of the ensemble as sections of a symphony orchestra, deriving rhythm and structure from their unique quirks…[Squirrels] will stand as one of Bogdanovich’s most inspiring and appetizing visions.

Farran Smith Nehme (professional film scholar, via Twitter):

My husband and I had a great time last night at @MoMAFilmfor SQUIRRELS TO THE NUTS, the Peter Bogdanovich film rescued by @jfkenney… A very funny movie that the audience clearly enjoyed.

Glenn Kenny –(New York Times and RogerEbert.com reviewer via Twitter)

It’s a really special picture,very stylized screwball but if you can catch its groove a complete riot. Exceeded my expectations. See it if you can!

Kenny on Letterboxd

 I expected an improvement on the jumbled She’s Funny That Way, but not necessarily first-stripe Bogdanovich. This maniacal post-screwball takes some acclimatizing — the declamatory style of the line readings …is very Contrary To Contemporary Practice but works once you get into it. The various meet-awkwards are hilarious and the treatment of erotic compulsion hits on something real about humankind and likely the filmmaker.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker:

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.)

Niall Browne, Movies in Focus:

Squirrels To The Nuts is a markedly different film. Gone is the haphazard framing device which sees Imogen Poots’s call girl-turned starlet talking to Ileana Douglas’s journalist. The new cut gives each character a full introduction, letting the film breathe in a way which She’s Funny That Way fails to do. Squirrels To The Nuts is much more focused, letting scenes play out in their natural form in a fashion which is more in-keeping with Bogdanovich’s directorial style.

The original release featured a lot of ‘tell don’t show’ due to its last-minute voiceover narration – a major no-no for film-making. However, Bogdanovich’s director’s cut has more ‘show don’t tell’ and the audience gets to figure out on their own what is happening on screen. Gone is the Quentin Tarantino cameo from She’s Funny That Way (it was cool but it made no sense) and in comes Stephen Dorff and Joanna Lumley (who had a post-credits cameo in the original) and music cues from Frank Sinatra and Tom Petty. Ultimately, Squirrels to The Nuts also features a much more satisfying (and sensical) conclusion than the version released eight years ago.

Speaking of satisfying conclusions – it’s something of a cinematic miracle that Peter Bogdanovich’s Squirrels To The Nuts was ever released. The movie gods have granted divine dispensation for the film’s discovery and it’s great to know that Bogdanovich was able to leave cineasts one final film.

Reviews from the Letterboxd website:

Nicole PassageIncredible how much better this is than the She’s Funny That Way cut.

Mark Metzger: it’s a zany, absolutely bonkers screwball comedy that feels right at home with the comedies of the 1930s. The script is a sharp and intricate weaving of characters getting into hilarious coincidental situations – a la Neil Simon and Ernst Lubitsch (whose work the title comes from). It’s really a total riot, and it works extremely well when it dives head first into the unbelievable and self-aware lunacy….Austin Pendleton is the gem of this whole film, proving once again why he’s one of New York’s legendary actors

Klee_mation: I haven’t seen the original cut so I can’t comment on that, but this version was great. Bogdanovich doesn’t quite hit the heights of What’s up Doc? but delivers a classic screwball with …tons of great laugh lines and an incredibly funny setpiece in the middle that really steals the show.

Matthew: …but all of these weird little things add up to something really lovely, and I say this as a total Bogdanovich apologist.  the movie is a GOOD TIME. it needs to be released properly!  please!

Campbell George: Just an absurdly good time. Shame the studio didn’t go with this cut because it’s all the screwball you could ask for in a comedy and then some. The ensemble is terrific, the punchlines land (literally). Terrible shame we don’t get more movies like this. What a note for Bogdanovich to go out on.

Mike Mekus: Not even joking when I say it genuinely warms my heart that a movie like this was made in 2014 and eventually got a legitimate release and has been able to be seen by a few people. Hopefully it gets a wide release, too. Makes me sad that movies like this basically don’t exist any longer, though. That’s sad.  Can’t compare it to the release cut (She’s Funny That Way) cause I have yet to see it, but I genuinely loved this. Pete Bogdanovich is a real director with a genuine vision and wonderful feel for zany, madcap, screwball ensemble comedies.

Matt Hoffman: Stunning. The MOMA audience went wild.

Jackson Ross: This is a fully formed, well-oiled movie, very intricately plotted and finally available in a form where that plotting is able to let itself play out the smooth way it was intended….And a lot more Pendleton! Does this count as a 2022 movie? Can I mount a Best Supporting Actor campaign for Pendleton? Best Supporting Pendleton?

Bananananana: It’s a very magical movie from such incredibly rare circumstances…Jennifer Aniston is wildly funny, Owen Wilson is also a perfect cast. Really everyone in the loaded ensemble is great…Was nice seeing the MoMa crowd (in the excellent theater) applaud at the finale…

Mattstechel: an enjoyably quick-witted movie… there’s a lot of great off the cuff one liners throughout and a lot of fun moments too even if the story is one of those unlikely situations that abound because none of the characters can just tell each other the truth.. It’s fun on the whole [and] it’s also very light and fizzy

Nick Miller: Extremely charming, a loving homage/attempt to revive screwball comedies.

Joel Little: I’m nuts for squirrels to the nuts! Austin Pendleton’s best supporting actor campaign begins now.

Ayeen Forootan: Squirrels is always authentically funny and full of wit and charm.

Johnny Pomato: It manages to fix just about all of the problems that the theatrically distributed film had, and it’s essentially like getting what I lamented we never would, a brand new Peter Bogdanovich film…Now every gag has a purpose and a forward momentum that is driving all of our characters to convene and collide. It’s incredible to discover one last great film from the director, and hopefully others will get the opportunity to see it soon as well.

Matt Walker: This movie had me in f***ing stiches. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun at a comedy.

Twitter responses:

Vikram Murthi: Squirrels to the Nuts is fantastic. Trades in the compressed mania of She’s Funny for a more luxurious farce where everyone gets an appropriate showcase, especially Pendleton who’s a goddamn hero. “After all that, it’s not even original” is a perfect career-capping line.

Nick Miller: “*eyes glowing* I’m going to go see Squirrels to the Nuts once more before it leaves the MoMA

Be Like Until the Boy: Traveled to NYC to see this on my birthday… it soon becomes clear that Bogdanovich still had his fastball… you’re in for a treat: great physical comedy, some lovely sentiment. The film belongs alongside “What’s Up, Doc?” and may well be a late masterpiece. After the film, I was outside leaning against the wall and texting my spouse. A woman looked at me and said, “Wasn’t it great?” That moment showed that, first, I still got it; and second, the movie–or Bogdanovich’s first crack at an edit–had the same magic we’ve seen in his other work.

Brendan: I’ve seen Squirrels to the Nuts twice this week and both times the people I took loved it! Thanks to @jfkenney for finding this gem! Hope it will be released to the general public soon!

Steve: Just saw it. The audience was in stitches. Might be Aniston’s best rolecaught squirrels to the nuts earlier and it’s uhhhh absolutely one of Bogdanovich’s best movies????????

Amy Robinson: “Squirrels to Nuts ” @MuseumModernArt this “lost” Peter Bogdanovich film really cheered me up after the toxic Oscar show.

Matt Prigge: Granted I have very little memory of Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, but Squirrels to the Nuts is…completely different? And it actually feels like a Bogdanovich? And it’s pretty great?

W. Montiel: She’s Funny That Way was already an important movie for me– Squirrels to the Nuts today – how infinitely more brilliant and charming it is – was one of my favorite moviegoing experiences of all time, thank you so much for that.

Sure, there is a minority of naysayers, too, but there are naysayers for What’s Up, Doc?, They All Laughed, Paper Moon, etc. –one man’s beer is another man’s p*** and all that — but this is Peter’s “lost child” returned to him unmolested and now being screened, and who can ask for more? The film fully reveals that Peter indeed had not “lost his fastball” and could still deliver singular work in 2014 at the same level he could in 1974 or 1984.  Its coming release (fingers crossed) will lead to a major reconsideration of not only this film but his career as it makes clear, that much like, yes, Orson Welles, his talent hadn’t slipped as he got older, just his opportunities.  As you likely know at this point, I “believed” enough in Peter that I recognized (with no, you know, actual evidence) that Funny That Way as released could not be his final project in his preferred form, and my suspicions paid off in October, 2020. While the film is Peter and Louise’s baby, I did adopt it and for an extended period proved a loving foster parent. I am thrilled that my efforts have led to this point and to whatever the future holds. And if new problems arise that keep it from being released, well, you can always come over to my house for a screening.

For those curious, I appeared on two terrific podcasts to discuss the film and my efforts at locating it and sharing it with Peter Bogdanovich: here (go U.S.A.!) and here (go Europe!).

One thought on “Nuts for the Squirrels: Peter Bogdanovich’s SQUIRRELS TO THE NUTS at MOMA

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