20 October 2012
Here’s the analogy I like more than I should: For a Good Time, Call… has great bones, terrible muscle, and combination skin.
The bones of the movie- its premise and its characters, the things that make it stand up and exist at all- are fantastic. The idea- a pair of female roommates start a phone sex line- is packed with fun and endless comic potential. The setup of that idea- an odd couple of old enemies move in together- makes for strong and simple conflict as well as a compelling central relationship to develop slowly and complexly (or as complexly as a film about a phone sex line can manage). Lauren and, specifically, Katie are great characters well worth watching and played excellently by Ari Graynor (Katie) and co-writer/Seth Rogen’s wife Lauren Miller (Lauren). Graynor is one of those actresses who should be a sensation but is mysteriously stuck in “she looks familiar” territory. Her comic timing is truly special and she’s no shrug of a dramatic actress either, managing to actually break my heart a bit on multiple occasions throughout For a Good Time, Call…
Perhaps the best thing about the film is that Katie is such a richly drawn character. A lot of the credit easily goes to Graynor for grounding her character’s every motivation, but the writers (Miller and Katie Anne Naylon) have handed her a character significantly more surprising and interesting than you’d expect. *spoiler alert*. The reveal of Katie’s virginity that comes more than halfway through the movie is one of the first twists all year that I genuinely didn’t see coming. But, beyond that, it’s a twist that actually makes perfect character sense. That combination of unpredictable and sense-making is almost non-existent these days, but somehow For a Good Time, Call… pulled it off. It was also, quite simply, a dynamic that I hadn’t seen before, or certainly not recently, in film- the idea of a character learning to only sleep with someone they love then saying “and nobody ever loved me”. It’s sad and sweet and new, which is key considering the raunchy female-centric tone of the film as a whole is more than riding on the coattails of earlier hits. Because of and despite this twist, Katie enjoys a bizarrely lovely romantic storyline. I say bizarrely because how this film (and actor Mark Webber) managed to convince me that a romance between a virginal phone sex worker and one of her callers is not only realistic but something to be encouraged is beyond me. But it’s adorable and Sean (Webber) is adorable and I not only intrinsically trusted him, I rooted for him and Katie (a character who seamlessly transitions from peeing in a BigGulp to starring in the audiences hearts).
Those are all the reasons why For a Good Time, Call… is kind of a great movie. It’s great in fundamental ways like what and who it’s about (also, Ari Graynor!). But somewhere between the brilliant idea+ perfect casting and the cineplex, something went wrong, and that thing is screenplay execution. This film is one that makes a great summary. The pitch meeting was probably very promising. But then the writers had to face the single biggest pain in a writer’s behind: plot. Okay, so these two girls hate each other and move in together and somehow end up starting a phone sex line and an epic friendship. But how? And what then? Therein lies the problem. The muscle of the movie- the stuff that goes on top of the bones and makes them move- is just weak. There’s some unimaginative business about James Wolk dumping Lauren and leaving her homeless and heartbroken (as if world’s-most-perfect James Wolk would ever leave a girl homeless and heartbroken!), and some more unimaginative business about Lauren’s dream job not opening up for another three months. Some excuse about a grandmother is made for Katie having a crazy amazing apartment (facilitating Lauren wanting to move in), and that excuse is extended to facilitate the girls needing to make some quick cash (this crazy amazing apartment is suddenly too expensive for a girl who works at the nail salon… who’da thunk?) .
But the biggest plotting issues come after the premise has been realised. The idea of the movie- 2 enemies move in together and start a phone sex line- only fills about 40 minutes. From there there has to be some conflict, and neither Katie’s excellent subplot (Sean) nor Lauren’s mediocre one (ex-boyfriend Wolk, future-boss Nia Vardalos) can make up enough conflict to constitute an actual climax. So the screenwriters throw in random things that might tear Lauren and Katie apart. Lauren takes a job she told Katie she wasn’t going to take, Katie inexplicably reveals their questionable business venture to Lauren’s straight-laced parents (after, of course, they make a bizarre video ad that makes denial impossible), Lauren screams at Katie that she’s a liar and a virgin before high-tailing it out of the apartment (two adjectives that have almost nothing to do with each other but are designed to make the scene feel hurtful and dramatic, which it still doesn’t). There is very little reason for the girls to do almost any of the things they do in the second half of the movie, specifically when it comes to their fighting with each other (Katie falling for Sean is the only solid plotting after act one). It’s the hardest part of screenwriting, but careless plotting still isn’t forgiveable when it drags down a film that should be better than it is.
The last part of my super lame metaphor is the “combination skin”. I mean the stuff that gets spread over top of the muscles and bones and is the first and most obvious thing someone sees- skin; get it? That’s the dialogue, mostly, but also the design of the film, the way it’s shot, the music choices. All of that’s pretty standard for the genre and tone of the movie, but the dialogue flits between sharply funny, bluntly and touchingly honest, and overreaching-meets-dumb. Some of the dumber stuff has to do with the aforementioned plotting (that “you’re a liar and a virgin” line is really just the pits) but there’s also a fair bit of wallowing in dirty talk long beyond its shock-comic value has worn off. A lot of the superficial and stylistic issues like that are wiped away by the strength of Graynor as a performer (sometimes I wished Miller could keep up with her, but then I remembered that she’s the writer and forgave her), but there’s no fixing the plot.
Ultimately, For a Good Time, Call… is worth suffering through some of its bigger flaws. It’s a sweet and sincere film that really does have something to say about the power of friendship and what’s actually important (as a big believer that friendship is every bit as interesting as, and altogether less explored than, romance, I found this movie incredibly refreshing). It’s rough, but it’s great.