Reviews

'What's Your Number?' Anna Faris Still Deserves Better

What's Your Number? strands Anna Faris, and the rest of the movie, by its devotion to those rom-com formulas.


What's Your Number?

Director: Mark Mylod
Cast: Anna Faris, Chris Evans, Ari Graynor, Blythe Danner, Anthony Mackie
Distributor: Fox
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release date: 2012-01-10

In comedy after comedy, Anna Faris has established her skill set as a comedienne: a combination of off-kilter line delivery, expressively widening eyes, and a general fearlessness not always seen in heavy dramas, let alone silly studio comedies. Faris rarely plays cynics; her characters are so lacking in self-awareness that even when playing a stoner (Smiley Face), a Playboy centerfold (The House Bunny), a raving lunatic of a pop star (Just Friends), or a wretched party girl (Observe and Report), they maintain a weird innocence, like a demented flip side to Amy Adams.

Ally Darling, then, the semi-dissolute single girl at the center of What's Your Number?, seems like the perfect mainstream-comedy role for Faris. Rattled -- Faris characters are often easily rattled -- by the loss of her job, the impending wedding of her little sister, and finally and most ridiculously, a Marie Claire article claiming that women who have slept with more than 20 guys are unlikely to find The One, Ally (on the brink of that magic number) goes on a quest to reconnect with ex-boyfriends and find out if any of them have become marriage material.

It's a silly high concept, to be sure, but not an unpromising one, especially with Faris in the lead and Chris Pratt, Andy Samberg, Anthony Mackie, and Thomas Lennon on hand to play exes. After the box-office success of The House Bunny, one of her best movies (in the sense that she has the leading role, giving the movie less opportunity to step on her brilliance), What's Your Number? felt like a project that should've taken her up another notch in the comedy-acting hierarchy.

Instead, the movie received the usual Faris reviews, lamenting the waste of her talent and wondering when that true next step would come. Compounding the problem, What's Your Number? had the misfortune to follow Bridesmaids, a smarter and sharper broad comedy with similar themes; the two movies even share an opening gag about a woman sneaking out of bed in the morning to apply makeup and appear more glamorous for her sexual partner (the movies came out too close together for the bit to qualify as stolen, but the closeness only makes it feel more second-hand). What's Your Number quietly flopped upon its September 2011 release.

Now on DVD, the movie still feels sadly out of step with its 2011 cousins, even when it delivers some laughs. Movies like Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher and Young Adult feature the kinds of characters Faris gravitates towards: overgrown girls, by turns messy, clumsy, lazy, or mean. That Kristen Wiig, Cameron Diaz, and Charlize Theron give markedly different performances from each other (or Faris) shows just how much range and potential there is when female-centered comedies are freed from perky rom-com formulas.

But What's Your Number? strands Faris, and the rest of the movie, by its devotion to those formulas -- specifically, the idea (chillingly detailed In the now-famous New Yorker profile during the making of this film) that comic heroines need be as plucky, likable, and relatable as possible. The script (or, presumably, a studio-mandated version of the script) sands down Ally's edges, lest anyone be put off by her joblessness, self-centeredness, or sexual openness. These kinds of movies go after a certain homogenized brand of cute haplessness, and What's Your Number? goes after being that kind of movie.

As such, it makes rom-com concessions left and right. Most egregiously, it grafts a lot of wedding-subplot nonsense onto an already busy farce. The movie piles on entrances, exits, characters, phone calls, and middling running gags, muddling what should be a pretty simple objective: show Ally interacting with a bunch of weirdo exes, assisted by her cad-with-a-heart-of-gold neighbor Colin (Chris Evans). Instead, the movie has superfluous scenes both comic (bridesmaids acting like a poor woman's Bridesmaids) and dramatic (the Darling sisters try to manage parental tension). The wedding business might've been funnier if Ari Graynor, perfectly cast as Faris's little sister, had shown more of the committed narcissism she assayed in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and The Sitter, but, matching her onscreen sibling, she's muzzled.

The extended cut available on DVD confirms suspicions of an overstuffed movie edited down with an eye towards accessibility more than comedy. The extended What's Your Number runs a solid ten minutes longer, and almost all of the added scenes are funny, serving the movie's main story yet cut from the theatrical release in favor of the underdeveloped familial and wedding relationships. Another six minutes of additional deleted scenes include even more of the movie's periodic flashbacks to Ally's past relationships, and while they're not all particularly funny (the best of them make it back into the extended cut, save for some footage of Faris dancing with real-life husband Pratt), they're where the movie should've been focused.

It's a shame, because taken purely on its own terms within its much-abused genre, What's Your Number? isn't too bad. It's actually a lot funnier than your typical Kate Hudson/Katherine Heigl affair, with some good throwaway lines (even if the dialogue doesn't build up enough speed), appealing performances from Faris and Evans, and funny ex-related vignettes. It's also nicer looking -- director Mark Mylod uses warmer colors and some actual Boston locations to avoid the overlit-sitcom look -- and sexier than the genre usually allows, with both Faris and Evans spending a number of scenes half-to-three-quarters naked.

Still, the movie could've been more than amusing had it been tailored for Faris rather than an imagined demographic of soft-hearted 20-something woo-girls. The script clearly wants to engage in cute banter, but wisecracking isn't really Faris's forte. She's better at imbuing potentially straight lines with unexpected notes, like the ruefulness in her voice when she mentions, when tracking her life choices by her hairstyles, "I'm always growing out my bangs." Later in the movie, while scaling a fence in service of typical rom-com hijinx, she pauses to complain: "This is bullshit." On its own, the line isn't particularly funny; the resigned directness of her delivery, though, is hilarious.

It's also a succinct description of Faris's place in a system that took the release of Bridesmaids as opportunity to buzz excitedly about how hey, women could be funny in movies, too. Maybe the financial success of Kristen Wiig's movie will show studios, and Faris herself, that audiences can handle more than just lovable career gals who want to get married. What's Your Number? goes down easy, but it leaves Faris doing a charming but vaguely dispiriting imitation America's Sweetheart, rather than a parody, a subversion, or something else entirely – something with a more interesting takeaway than "she deserves better".

5

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