Monday, October 10, 2011

Stupid Is as Stupid Does

My loyal movie-going sidekick Anne introduced a new term to me this past week. "Stupid Factor" refers to how amusing a film can be based on the pure inanity of the execution. When you create a great film in the vein of any year's Best Picture Academy Award winner, often a great amount of attention is given to refining the screenplay, getting the smallest details correct, and casting the best and brightest talents available. Much like a cooking steak, it is that attention that makes the difference between  a five-star dinner and a burnt vaguely meat-like carcass. Of course, you don't always want steak for dinner, and by extension you don't always have a strong desire to see The King's Speech or The Hurt Locker, no matter how high the quality in their design. As my father often says, sometimes you just want cotton candy. Sure, it might be completely without nutritional value, but for a light, filling snack that's euphoric in flavor, it will do the job. Many films don't possess anywhere near the attention deserved of a sure award nominee, but still manage to be entertaining nonetheless. That's where Stupid Factor comes in. Many movies entertain not by telling original stories or even by showing off superior acting skills. No, these films attract people to the theaters despite rote characters, cliched plots and mediocre performances by cranking up the stupidity and raunchiness. They've been around forever; how else could Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura be so well remembered by people my age if not because of how stupid they were? But since Jim Carrey hasn't had a solid movie career in years, these days Stupid Factor generally applies to one particular genre of film: romantic comedies. What's Your Number? at face value looks like a typical romance tale of a mismatched pair destined to be with one another. Would the Stupid Factor manage to bring it to a higher level than this by-the-numbers storytelling could take it?

"Crazy Eyes" since 1976
Based on the novel 20 Times a Lady by Karyn Bosnak, What's Your Number? takes inspiration from those silly Cosmopolitan articles and tries to see what will happen when one of its readers takes the story a little too seriously. After reading that a woman with twenty or more sexual partners is much less likely to find their true love and marry, Ally Darling (Anna Faris) finds herself suffering a crisis as she realizes that she has hit that milestone without finding "The One". Not wanting to sleep with anyone until she meets that special someone, she soon realizes that the answer might be in her exes, many of whom have improved with age. Despite other critical issues going on in her life, Ally enlists the help of Colin Shea (Chris Evans), the perennial ladies man from across the hall, and begins to hunt down all twenty men she's slept with, hoping to find the one of them has gone from loser to winner.

I would not want to have to climb those stairs
Okay, yes, I admit it: that premise was PAINFUL to commit to the page. As I already stated, the whole story surrounding a fictional Prince Charming is a bit tough to swallow. Thankfully the Stupid Factor kicks in to assist in making the whole experience far more palatable. First of all, Ally is given a broad array of former beaus on whom to focus, from the formerly obese Disgusting Donald (Chris Pratt) to puppeteer Gerry Perry (SNL's Andy Samberg) to gynecologist Dr. Barrett Ingold (Thomas Lennon), each with their own background and individual characteristics. Some of the more interesting moments in the film are the reuniting of Ally with these men, and realizing why the pair never worked out in the first place. There are definitely some raunchy moments (and some body parts that should perhaps never be shown on film) but for an R-rated romantic comedy it's nowhere near as revealing as Love and Other Drugs or as crass as Bad Teacher, which is nice since the film wouldn't have worked if it had tried to portray Ally as a sex-starved harlot. Here she's mostly innocent, just a hapless young woman trying to find her way, and that makes for great interaction between her and just about any other character in the cast.

Aaand this review just got more interesting!
The only problem is that Ally as a focal point is just not the most engrossing person. That part belongs to Colin, played by the superb Chris Evans. While Faris is certainly competent and well-cast to her role, the slight addition of Clueless-era Alicia Silverstone to Faris' existing cinema persona does little make Ally any different from any of her previous roles. If you saw her breakthrough in the early Scary Movie titles, congratulations; you've seen everything she has to offer as an actress and as a comedian. Evans however is something special. I've remarked in recent months that there are some actors and actresses for whom I'll see any motion picture, from Helen Mirren to Ryan Gosling. Evans has silently crept his way onto that list, most notably because of the variety of roles he takes on. Evans has no issue with starring in sci-fi thrillers (Sunshine, Push) or comic book adaptations (The Losers, Captain America) or really WEIRD comic book adaptations (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and that's both excellent and refreshing to find in a young actor. It doesn't hurt that each character he plays is fundamentally different from the last, meaning that as a performer Evans has nowhere to go but up in the industry. Here is no different as he tackles the role of an unapologetic man-whore expertly, never making Colin unlikable and in fact transforming him over the course of the story. Some other standouts are Ari Graynor as Ally's soon-to-be-married sister and Blythe Danner as her overly-critical mother, but nobody comes close to topping Evans.

This is how bad decisions are born
Unfortunately, that is also true for the film as a whole. While the Stupid Factor can indeed raise a film above its limitations, it is usually invoked when there's no choice but to do so. Despite some genuinely interesting moments (as well as taking place in my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts) there's very little that elevates this above similar RomCom fare, and it's not much better than the fun but generic Larry Crowne or the pointless One Day. While I liked that the first shot of the film was an article declaring that romantic comedies were not just for women anymore, there are few opportunities like this that really make you feel that any of this is new. The worst part is that in What's Your Number?'s final moments it reneges on the entirety of progress our lead character made over the length of the film. Part of this is surely from the typicality chick lit book on which the film is based. Part of it likely falls on director Mark Mylod, who doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in a future film career. Whoever is at fault, the film suffers from a serious lack of conviction in the closing of the story. Though there's only so much Stupid Factor can do, it can make even bad movies into a joyful trip complete with picnic baskets, as it does so here. Just don't go in to this one thinking it's smarter than your average film.

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