Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Early Review: "What's Your Number?" is a despicable, unfunny romantic comedy; so by genre standards, it's not that bad

Film Rating: D

The romantic comedy genre is a plague on our society.  These films are poorly written, lazily executed, send promising young thespians spiraling down dark and messy career paths, convey inaccurate and insulting messages about gender roles, and are never, ever funny.  I fear that once humanity is extinct and aliens come to survey our uninhabited planet, they will find old DVDs of films like “Monster-in-Law,” “Failure to Launch,” “Fool’s Gold,” or any of the hundreds of other pitiable entries in the genre, and will dismiss our species as a shallow, craven misappropriation of body tissue, burning the soil we once walked in just to remove every last vestige of our culture.

By the standards of the genre, “What’s Your Number?” could be worse.  They could have cast Matthew McConaughey in the male role instead of Chris Evans, or Katherine Heigl in lieu of Anna Farris.  Had that been the case, this review would not exist, because I would have run screaming out of the theatre twenty minutes in looking for the nearest bridge to jump from.  The rant continues after the jump...

I don’t want to undersell the good work Farris and Evans put in here; they don’t really elevate the material – nobody could – but they do make it tolerable, and that’s an achievement.  Farris has always been a charming, unique comic presence forced to take some very bad roles to pay the bills, and “What’s Your Number?” is no exception.  This is a fairly awful part in a fairly awful movie, but Farris is confident and bubbly and amiable, and though she never elicited a laugh out of me, that’s really not her fault; she does the best with what little she’s been given.  I hope she finds a better vehicle one day, because she really deserves to be a star: put her in a quality comedy like “Bridesmaids” and I can easily see her career skyrocketing. 

Chris Evans, on the other hand, doesn’t have that problem any more.  He’s a great actor who has been giving movie star performances for years now, all the way back to the otherwise dreadful “Fantastic Four” films, and after donning the red, white and blue in “Captain America” this summer, he’ll never have to take a role like this again.  The part itself isn’t oppressively bad, just your basic ‘lovable’ womanizer type, and as with every role Evans takes, he hits it out of the park.  He has a comfortable, easy screen presence generally unseen in these types of movies, and as such, he’s the only one to generate any real laughs.  Still, an actor of his caliber shouldn’t be appearing in dreck like this, and now that he’s an honest-to-God star, he won’t have to. 

But while Evans is off finding career fulfillment away from romantic comedies, I’m still stuck here reviewing these turds.  “What’s Your Number?” has one of the more asinine set-ups for a rom-com I’ve seen in quite some time.  Farris’ character has just gotten out of a relationship when an article in Marie Claire prompts her to think about the number of guys she has slept with.  She discovers it to be 19, and reacting with a disproportionate amount of shame and self-loathing, vows not to sleep with another guy until she’s sure he’s ‘the one.’  To circumvent her own new rule, she decides to check into the lives of all her former lovers, wondering if any of them have gotten better with time and could somehow be her one true love.  Her next-door neighbor, Chris Evans, is great at digging up information on the internet, so she employs him to help her track down her exes.  Wacky hijinks ensue. 

Oy.  I don’t even know where to begin on this one.  Let’s start with the sexist, puritanical focus behind the narrative.  Farris has slept with 19 guys.  Okay, if she thinks that’s too high, perhaps she should be more thoughtful in the future, but is it really worth the kind of hand-wringing and embarrassment the character feels?  I’m not advocating for sixties-style ‘free-love’ or anything, but this also isn’t 1886.  Farris shouldn’t be forced into a drunken spiral of depression just because she’s had a series of bad romances.  It happens.  We get it.  Nobody’s perfect.  That’s life.  Real life, at least.  In the world of the film, a woman should be ashamed of herself for having that many partners.  If a man like Evans has sex with a different concubine every night, that just makes him a lovable rogue, but if a woman dares to engage in sexual variety, she better put the brakes on and find a husband fast.  It’s sexism, plain and simple, and the film presents a horridly simplistic and outdated view of gender roles.

Before anyone asks, yes, I’m well aware that the film ends with the message that it’s okay for Farris to ‘be herself,’ and that Evans learns the value of monogamy.  Not only does a hackneyed, predictable ending in no way redeem the attitude of the other 95 percent of the film, but it only furthers the film’s crude outlook on gender classification, where the concept of a ‘character arc’ is for partners of the opposite sex to realize certain values ‘inherent’ in the other gender.

As you may have gathered, Farris and Evans do get together in the end, which most certainly isn’t a spoiler in this sort of movie.  This is the most baffling element of the narrative to me, that the film would spend the vast majority of its run-time keeping these two apart when they will are so obviously destined for romance from the moment they first share the frame.  It’s not just rom-com conventions driving them together, either: Farris and Evans have real, palpable chemistry, and the scenes they share have a genuine charm.  They are kept apart only because of Farris’ inane quest to reunite with her exes, and it’s mind-boggling how vastly unentertaining her encounters with these people are, especially in comparison to her casual, endearing interactions with Evans. 

Many talented comedians are put to waste as Farris discovers how each of her exes is still the wrong guy for her (really? The guy you broke up with isn’t the man of your dreams? What a twist!), including Chris Pratt (one of the funniest characters on TV’s best comedy, Parks and Recreation), Joel McHale (the lead on TV’s second-best comedy, Community), Martin Freeman (Tim from the British Office and soon-to-be Bilbo Baggins), Andy Samberg (SNL), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”), and Zachary Quinto (Spock #2).  Of these, only Freeman, Pratt, and Mackie walk away with their dignity intact, and even then, it’s not like they’ve done their careers any favors by appearing in this garbage. 

Each meeting with each ex is designed to be a comic set-piece, but each sequence goes for the laziest, most obvious jokes imaginable, and none of the gags connect.  The material between Farris and Evans is infinitely more appealing, as evidenced by a stretch in the middle of the film where the ‘ex-hunt’ conceit is briefly abandoned so Farris and Evans can share an evening bonding over basketball and skinny-dipping.  It’s not the height of romantic genius or anything, but it’s the best scene in the film, proving that there is a version of this movie that could work were the main premise abandoned.  If this were a simpler film about two free-spirits connecting during a period of self-reflection, I think it could be a perfectly charming little romance, such is Farris and Evans’ chemistry.

But that would take nuance, which would in turn require actual effort on the part of the filmmakers, so instead we get this lazy, desperate mess of a rom-com.  All of the other standard traits of the genre are on full display here: the writing is terrible, featuring dialogue so cringe-worthy that it would make George Lucas proud to have scribed the Star Wars prequels; the direction is lazy and uninspired, and I can safely say I regularly watch multiple TV comedies with a more interesting visual palette; the score by rom-com regular Aaron Zigman is oppressively trite and generic, and the ill-timed use of bad pop songs doesn’t help.

Most importantly, the entire film is woefully, painfully unfunny.  As is my wont, I kept the following count: I laughed three times, twice at Evans and once at Pratt.  I cracked a smile in three scenes involving Farris.  That would be a bad track-record for a single episode of television, let alone a 100-minute movie.  I saw the film in a sold-out crowd, and that’s an environment that really underlines whether or not the comedy works, because if the crowd is laughing – and crowds will laugh at anything, mind you – it’s nearly impossible not to laugh along with everyone else.  Yet as others guffawed, I grimaced.  It’s not like I wasn’t ready and willing to laugh: I like Farris, I like Evans, hell, I like nearly every member of this cast.  They’ve all elicited big laughs out of me in the past.  When none of them can get me grinning in this film, something is just wrong.

Such is the nature of the romantic comedy, of course.  As per usual, this one is neither comedic nor particularly romantic, and its sense of morality is just as despicable as we’ve come to expect from the genre.  It does at least have appealing and capable leads, which is more than I can say for many of these films, and if one is dragged to “What’s Your Number?” this weekend, Evans and Farris will ensure that one won’t want to bite their own leg off to survive.  So there’s that.  

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