While thumbing through a women’s magazine on the subway, a young-ish Bostonian named Ally Darling (Anna Faris) happens on an article positing that 96 percent of women who have slept with 20 or more men will never marry. Ally was laid off from her job only moments before, but the heroine of What’s Your Number? is far more rattled by the possibility that her number — at that time, 19 — will jeopardize her chances at marriage. Just imagine what Jane Austen would have done with this Sluts and Non-Sensibility scenario.
Directed by Mark Mylod, What’s Your Number? is not much dumber than the average romantic comedy, but there is something sad and infuriating about it — like running into a high school friend who seemed destined for greatness and walking away realizing she just picked your pocket. There’s always been something vulnerable about Faris, an ease of conveying innocence and decency, but she’s also capable of very sly characterizations, like the unforgettable silly movie star in Lost in Translation. As with most scene stealers, she creates an urge for more of whatever she’s doing. If she can make something as unpleasant as Observe and Report bearable for even two minutes, logic suggests someone should give her more starring roles with closer to 90 minutes on screen. That may still be true, but the 106 minutes of What’s Your Number are not the right ones. Faris’s timing is as good as ever, but having the gifted parodist play it straight for the most part — there’s a fun bit with a fake British accent — seems like a waste of comic resources.
Ally’s main quality seems to be malleability. Cowed by research found in Marie Claire, she vows chastity until she meets husband material worthy of being #20. She does this in a bar, surrounded by friends and shot glasses, and in the morning wakes up with company. Having accidentally hit the magic number, she decides to work back through her list to find someone to marry. She enlists her strapping neighbor Colin (Chris Evans) to help track down ex-lovers (that Google is so complicated!) in exchange for allowing him to hide from his romantic conquests in her apartment. The writing is on the wall, although the way Colin leers does provide a modicum of suspense. “Your rapey neighbor?” Ally’s friend asks of him. “Do we call him that?” Ally answers, faintly. Yes, yes, we do! Me and you and everyone we know.
The past is bleak. There’s a beau who is now an OB/GYN and recognizes her only mid-Pap smear; a closeted gay man (Anthony Mackie) for whom she pretended to be conservative during college; and a formerly overweight man she called Disgusting Donald (Moneyball‘s Chris Pratt, Faris’s off-screen husband), who serves to make a good point about Ally’s superficiality. Revisiting lovers was done to such better effect in High Fidelity, where it had a legitimate purpose. Ally’s undertaking is so thinly motivated; screenwriters Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden could just as well have justified it by bringing in a fairy godmother to enchant her.
This movie has the misfortune of opening with a set piece identical to the one that opens Bridesmaids, with Ally sneaking back into bed with #19 (Zachary Quinto) after prettying herself up. There are other similarities: a wedding provides the narrative scaffolding, Ally delivers an awkward toast at her sister Daisy’s (Ari Graynor) engagement party and a blue-collar guy comes to the rescue. But in each case, What’s Your Number falls short in comparison; the clever truths about friendship and love that made Bridesmaids special are missing, along with any confidence that the heroine is capable of self respect.
Moreover, What’s Your Number? doesn’t think out of the box, despite having an atypical star. Faris goes through the rom-com heroine motions: getting drunk in public, falling off high heels, stuffing a hot dog in her mouth. Whichever long-ago focus group determined that pretty women in movies would be more endearing if they ate like construction workers on 3-minute breaks should be found and force-fed hot dogs as penance.
It looks and feels like every other rom-com, with the usual mise-en-scene of artistically disheveled and absurdly enormous apartments intercut with enough urban shots to establish place, but not community; I could watch this movie in my sleep. The screenplay does include an acknowledgement by one character, mid-pursuit to profess love, that it would have been easier to just go back to the person’s apartment and wait for them. Ha. But acknowledging the dopiness of other rom-coms doesn’t make this movie smarter: if the screenwriters knew it was silly, why didn’t they write a smarter ending? Colin tells Ally, “You seem like the kind of girl who tries to make a bad thing work.” True of Faris as well, but try as she may, gifted as she is, she can’t make this bad thing work.