Katie (Ari Graynor) has a terrific apartment overlooking Gramercy Park, inherited from her dear dead boobie. She’s lived in this astounding space with a great view for five years, but as For a Good Time, Call… begins, Katie’s facing eviction. She does her best to scare off potential new tenants (“Have fun with my grandmother’s ghost,” she singsongs, “She talks in her sleep about the Holocaust”), but her landlord makes clear she has only four days to “get a damn roommate.”
Enter the gay best friend, Jesse (Justin Long)—not as the roommate, but as the go-between. It happens that he knows someone else in crisis, Lauren (Lauren Anne Miller), recently dumped by her boyfriend Charlie (James Wolk) (“I’m saying that we are boring,” he tells her on his way out the door to a new assignment in Paris, “I am crazy out of my head bored”). The girls share a bad college-days history (helpfully illustrated by an antic flashback involving pee-in-a-cup and a new car), meaning, they’re an odd couple.
This would be the film’s premise: Lauren is a little boring (though not nearly so boring as Charlie) and Katie is raucous (though not so raucous as she thinks she is). Lauren is looking for work as a book editor, Katie works as a sex line operator, that is, talking her clients into climaxes with moans and exclamations Lauren hears through her bedroom door. Predictably repulsed, Lauren finds a way toward understanding when she can’t, in fact, find a job, and so offers to set Katie up with her own phone sex company, thus eliminating the ever-exploitative middle person.
Oooh, project!! The girls are soon bonding over the retro pink telephone Lauren bestows on Katie, selecting a name for the business, and then its booming success (with clients played by Kevin Smith in a car and Seth Rogin in a bathroom stall, both wholly unsurprising). When they decide to hire a second operator, the requisite audition sequence produces a cutesy-voiced employee who seems perfect but then, alas!, is not. And so, yay!, the girls get to bond some more, as Lauren determines she’s the perfect second operator, as long as she can learn the necessary performative skills. “I am good at everything, you know that,” she insists. Katie nods.
Here the film comes on a potential goldmine, in the sense that the subsequent instructions and rehearsals make explicit the performance that sex and also love entail, as well as the utter ridiculousness and sublimity of the sex industry per se. On one, er, hand, it allows for all manner of intimacies and shared experiences, and on another, per the various inherent barriers (distance, anonymity, money), it also allows for a range of bad behaviors and betrayals. The film pulls these risks and rewards together in the roommates’ relationship, which eventually becomes complicated and also formulaic. Though a proper heterosexual partner is provided for at least of the women, they play the Harry and Sally parts to one another, finding just how perfectly suited they are to one another, sharing a bit of witty sex-wordplay within the larger frame of doubts and hijinks and lots of dildo jokes.
In itself, this mapping of a rom-com romance onto two women who are not technically going to have sex with one another is refreshing and even clever. As a genre in perpetual trouble and also perpetual demand, romantic comedy’s Apatowian era is currently shapeshifting into the same sort of vulgarity but with vaginas. But if For a Good Time, Call… (or its promotion strategy) is obviously banking on Bridesmaids’ outsized success, the film offers its own mini-challenges to the conventions that so often constrain the genre, most visibly and effectively in the de-romancing of sex. It is here literally a job, with expertise that can be learned and faked.
But if For a Good Time, Call… has a good idea, its results are mixed. Sometimes the jokes are flat (the gay best friend with the little dog and assorted neuroses is just tedious already), and sometimes they’re maybe vulgar but not nearly shocking or especially hilarious (Lauren’s pearls-and-pastels, lawn-party-type parents, played by Mimi Rogers and Don McManus, come by for a couple of surprise visits, and they never know what to make of the dildos or the stripper pole). And of course, both women are propelled onto predictable trajectories (Lauren learns to dress up and so, feel more like herself, and Katie learns to perform less and also, to actually have sex and to not just perform it on the phone). The mixed part is this: they’re also pretty good together, and you’d like to see them spend a few more scenes talking, doing less plot-pushing and more characterizing.
As it is, the film works harder at crowd-pleasing than critiquing a genre and even a whole set of related industries (from Hallmark and Harlequin, to Garry Marshall and Woody Allen, to Penthouse and Wicked Pictures). The one-liners are weak, the finale feels canned, and the girls look as contained—as nicely packaged and broadly marketable—as they did before this whole bonding-and-realizing process started.