Ally is afflicted repeatedly by life-changing revelations in What's Your Number?, in which she must sort out how to be a happy rom-com heroine.
It's really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I'm not a one-man woman. Bottom line.
-- Nola Darling, She's Gotta Have It (1986)
"No one likes doggy-style," Daisy Darling (Ari Graynor) announces. "Even the dogs are just waiting for it to be over." Her older sister Ally (Anna Faris) takes this as news: she's been putting up with this from boyfriend after one-night-stand all these years, and oh my goodness, she's not the only girl who hates it.
These are the sorts of revelations that afflict Ally repeatedly in What's Your Number?, in which she must sort out how to be a happy rom-com heroine. This even though she's in a film that styles itself as parody, which means that her happiness must be nominal and ironic rather than earnest. The problem is, of course, that the genre is premised, at least in part, on clichés and self-awareness and irony, however sugary. Thus the rom-com perpetually delivers the happy ending while knowing that you know it's a fiction. No one who's seen a romantic comedy -- from Bringing Up Baby to Some Like It Hot to Knocked Up -- believes it. You know the formula, you get the jokes, and you assess the art.
In What's Your Number?, that art is uneven and unoriginal, sometimes amusing (we all know that casting Anna Faris -- everyone's favorite Klutz, goes a long way toward salvaging any potential disaster) and most times broad and boring. Here's Ally's very Bridesmaids-like situation: as the film begins, she's helping Daisy to prepare for her upcoming wedding to a rediscovered former high school sweetheart, a guy (who is forgettable and probably ironically one-dimensional, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She also kicks out her latest boyfriend (Zachary Quinto) and is fired from her job, whereupon she goes out drinking and ends up in bed with her exceedingly skeevy ex-boss (Joel McHale).
All this as she's thinking, apparently seriously, about a Marie Claire article she's read, asserting that any woman who's slept with more than 20 men is unlikely to get married. Because, you know, getting married is every rom-com woman's goal. And so Ally not only makes a list of all the boys she's slept with, she also determines that since she's just slept with the number 20 (the ex-boss), she needs to re-hook-up with a name on that list, because she just cannot get to 21.
That possibility is Colin (Chris Evans), who lives across the hall in her Boston apartment building. He sleeps with a different model-type beauty every night and, in a plot device that's as clumsy and charmless as any in the genre, he needs a place to hide every morning so he can wait for the beauty to leave. He also happens to be the son of a cop and so knows how to google (or, as the movie phrases it, he's good at tracking people down). Because he's the only person Ally knows with such prodigious skills, she agrees to let him hide at her place (which means she sees him mostly naked a lot) in exchange for his locating her exes.
These exes run the gamut of bad choices, exemplifying Ally's different desperations at different points in her life. As she remeets each ex, flashbacks emphasize Ally's efforts to please them, by ridiculous deceptions and grating self-delusions: she "learned to cook" while living with Disgusting Donald (Chris Pratt) (both are wearing fat suits in her memory), she affected a British accent to attract Simon (Martin Freeman), and she slept with pimply-faced high school nerd Gerry Perry (Andy Samberg) and his muppety hand puppet because he was dating her sister at the time (or maybe because his name seemed funny in the writers' room). She also had a black boyfriend (Anthony Mackie), a college Republican with whom she campaigned on campus for George Bush, and who's now gay. We can only guess that this sounded very funny at some point.
Yes, Ally is pathetic and in need of true love from Colin. Yes, she's jealous of Daisy. And yes, it's all her mother's fault: Ava Darling (Blythe Danner) has been so determined that her daughters "marry well," that Ally's been picking men who embody her own (and her mother's) insecurities. Thank goodness that Ava's own ex, Ally's dad (Ed Begley Jr.) shows up to remind her that she's really offbeat, like him, and doesn't have to hook up with the wealthy scion (David Annable) her mom prefers. Again, this concept comes as news to Ally.
It's possible that Ally hasn't seen a romantic comedy (and probable that she hasn't seen the still remarkable She's Gotta Have It, whose protagonist shares her last name as well as her initial dilemma, namely, how to make sense of -- or just live with -- the idea that men's "numbers" are naturally higher than women's). It's possible too, that, for all her magazine reading and internet searching, she really has no idea that the clichés she's living are just that. It's even possible that Colin would fall for her, sincerely and wholly, and she for him, for reasons you'll never discern.
But none of these possibilities helps What's Your Number? make sense. It's neither funny nor smart enough to overcome its foundational illogic, its self-positioning as a parody of a genre that is always already a parody. "I don’t know why you girls care so much about your number so much anyway," opines Colin during one of the couple-to-be's heart-to-hearts. Ally attempts to explain it, but she can't.