After you've seen What's Your Number?, check out our Spoiler Special discussion:
If What’s Your Number? (Twentieth Century Fox), a new romantic comedy starring Anna Faris and Chris Evans and directed by Mike Mylod, contains even a grain of truth about contemporary gender politics, then being a young woman in 2011 must be a frightening and confusing experience indeed. That What’s Your Number? is a bad movie is the least of the reasons to walk out of it feeling awful. Competing for the top spot are these two: the criminal misuse of Faris, a diminutive, round-eyed blonde who’s one of the most talented comic actresses now working; and the casual endorsement of courtship practices as arcane and sadistic as Chinese foot-binding.
Of course, it could be argued that What’s Your Number? doesn’t really endorse the belief system that its heroine, Ally Darling (Faris), reads about in a women’s magazine and immediately takes to heart: that women become steadily less desirable with each new sexual encounter while men are free to rack up Situation-esque numbers with no harm done. There are a couple of characters, including Ally’s hunky neighbor and obvious future soulmate, Colin (the appealing if miscast Evans), who dismiss this kind of notch-counting as antiquated. But ultimately, both Colin and the audience become complicit in the prescriptive fiction that having sex acts as an erosive force on the female character. Over the course of the film, Ally moves—sort of—from denying to embracing her identity as a slut, but the category of “slut” itself is never called into question.
According to the article Ally reads, once a woman has had in excess of 20 sexual partners, her chances of getting married drop precipitously. Making a quick headcount, Ally realizes with horror that she’s already at 19, and that the next guy she sleeps with had better be “the one.” Ally’s haste to pair off is increased by the fact that her perfect younger sister, Daisy (Ari Graynor, looking more like Angie Dickinson than ever), is about to marry her high-school sweetheart. So Ally decides to go through her list of exes and look them up one by one, reasoning that if she can find true love with someone she’s already been defiled by, she won’t have to increase her count.
With Colin’s help, Ally begins methodically tracking down her past lovers, allowing for a parade of cameos that include Andy Samberg as a pimpled teenage puppeteer, Chris Pratt (Faris’ real-life husband) as a former fat guy who’s now become both slim and engaged, and Anthony Mackie as a closeted gay politician who wants Ally to serve as his beard. (Mackie’s furtive confession is one of the many moments when Eisenhower-era sexual mores mysteriously bob to the surface of this raunchy comedy.) Ally begins to despair of ever finding “the one”—until the night her and Colin’s platonic date turns into a one-on-one game of strip basketball. Will she throw caution to the wind and make the fateful leap into sex den No. 20?
If the lead was played by your average rom-com placeholder girl sashaying ditzily through these plot machinations, I might just throw up my hands and write off What’s Your Number? on the grounds that a dumb movie and a dumb actress deserve each other. But the presence of Faris renders the proceedings not just annoying but actively depressing. This 34-year-old actress is so gifted, so funny, so game that even this material can’t keep her from getting the odd laugh.
In the movie’s best scene, Ally runs into a British ex-boyfriend (Martin Freeman of the original Office). Her face twisted in panic, she launches into a posh Oxbridge accent, and we realize that during their entire relationship she must have passed herself off as a Brit. The two head off for a pint at the pub, and the more Ally drinks the further her accent devolves—first to Eliza Doolittle and, finally, to Borat. It’s a scene that lets Faris showcase some of her skill sets: vocal impressions, self-mocking goofiness, and above all audacity, the ability to push a joke past its initial beat to a different, crazier place. More than any contemporary comedienne I can think of (with the possible exception of Kristen Wiig, who mines a different, drier vein), Faris demonstrates this fearless anything-for-a-laugh quality. It would be wonderful to see her in a movie that tested the limits of that audacity, rather than forcing her to tamp it down.
I’ve already raved about Faris’ performance in the otherwise unremarkable The House Bunny and in a short guest arc on the despicable Entourage. To see her in a role that does deserve her, watch Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face, a feminist stoner odyssey that seems to get funnier and more radical with each viewing. Yes, Faris generally plays the role of a well-intentioned spaz, but she wouldn’t be the first comic to have established a career creating variants on one persona.
For comedy connoisseurs it isn’t news that Anna Faris is a largely untapped treasure. The melancholy question that lingers on the way out of the vulgar yet retrograde What’s Your Number? is: Whither Anna? Tad Friend’s profile of Faris in The New Yorker earlier this year was both an exploration of the actress’ originality and a portrait of the Hollywood forces conspiring to stifle it. This movie, which Faris co-executive-produced, is a grim byproduct of precisely that tension. It’s dispiritingly easy to imagine Faris trapped by the paucity of female roles available to her, like the heroine of an Edith Wharton novel. At the end of What’s Your Number? her character, Ally, manages to find happiness despite her double-digit roster of lovers. But Anna Faris can’t let herself be besmirched by 19 more comedies like this one.