Unless Mel Gibson secretly plans on releasing a remake of Fiddler On The Roof within the next few months, it would be hard to imagine a film arriving in theaters with more unwanted, unintentional baggage than Peter Bogdanovich's ill-fated romantic comedy They All Laughed did in 1981. Intended as a love letter to film, love, New York City, and especially his then-partner Dorothy Stratten, Bogdanovich's delicate trifle was spoiled by Stratten's murder at the hands of her jealous husband. (Bob Fosse chronicled that fatal relationship with queasy intensity in Star 80.) When no distributor would release They All Laughed, Bogdanovich sank a huge chunk of his personal fortune into releasing it himself, the ultimate quixotic romantic gesture for a film dizzy from start to finish with l'amour fou.

Shot by a skeleton crew on the streets of New York, They All Laughed follows the lighter-than-air misadventures of a trio of love-struck detectives.  Ladies' man Ben Gazzara pursues unhappily married Audrey Hepburn, pratfall-happy John Ritter falls (literally and figuratively) for Stratten, and curly-haired stoner Blaine Novak throws himself at anything that moves. Meanwhile, Colleen Camp steals scenes as a countrypolitan songbird who's a dynamite broad in the best sense of the term, a tough-talking chatterbox with more balls than any of her male co-stars.  

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Inspired by the opening of Rio Bravo, Bogdanovich tells the story in largely visual terms, particularly in a first half extremely light on dialogue. His swooning romantic comedy relies less on plot and characterization than on the bittersweet tone and unexpected moments of grace. Laughed is infatuated with infatuation. It's enamored of a particularly cinematic kind of love, an attraction predicated on stolen glances and fleeting moments of connection rather than earthier concerns like compatibility or mutual interests. It's tempting to overrate the film, especially in light of its director's heartbreakingly intimate connection to his material, but Bogdanovich only intermittently achieves the heady mood of screwball melancholy to which he aspires. For all its delightful performances, savvy location shooting, and breezy charm, They All Laughed is ultimately something of a tantalizing tease, all flirtation and no consummation.

Key features: A conversation between Bogdanovich and director/admirer Wes Anderson supplements the expected commentary track.