When looking back at the past 10, maybe even 15 years in cinema, particularly American and English-language cinema, sex has become a hot topic ripe for comedy. Not that comedies in decades past played not role in movie comedies, but it is really only in cinema’s recent history that screenwriters and directors have really embraced the full extent to which all things that happen ‘in the sack’ can be conducive to big laughs. The sexual content in said films has always presented as something the characters, male or female (although typically the former) want to obtain by any means necessary. If 2012 is any indication, the nature of the sex comedy may be finding a different course to navigate, such as with the Jamie Travis directed comedy, For a Good Time, Call…
Set in Manhattan where the twentysomething crowd live in unbelievably spacious apartments, the story follows two young women, Lauren Powell (Lauren Ann Miller, who also co-wrote the screenplay) and Katie (Ari Graynor, who also filled the the role of co-producer) who must live together when the former is out of a job and loses her boyfriend, thus enable to pay rent, while the latter sees her monthly fees rise exponentially in the middle of the summer. The main issue is that neither enjoys the other one’s company very much, their rivalry having begun several years ago back in college during a party when Katie’s drunken antics caused Lauren considerable embarrassment. Their mutual friend Jesse (Justin Long), seeing that neither will have a roof over their heads if they cannot settle aside their differences, forces them to co-exist. The first few days are filled with tension, but soon enough the bitterness wears off. Their new found friendship really gets into high gear when, now unemployed, Lauren, a consummate professional to the point where she has been described as boring at times, discovers the nature of her roommates current job: Katie, it turns out, works for a company offering needy men phone sex. What appears to a dirty, morally reprehensible act may very well prove to be the very thing Lauren needs to earn some serious money and get some character.
It is all the more interesting that For a Good Time, Call… should come out now in 2012 given that only a few months ago, at the start of the summer, movie goers had the opportunity to see Hysteria, a comedy period piece starring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal which, through a bit of drama and a lot of laughs, shared the story of the invention of the vibrator. Now comes another movie which, in some ways and yet again with the aspiration of making lots of people laugh out loud, peels the presentation layers of the sex industry away to reveal how it operates behind the scenes. Is a new sub genre of sex comedy emerging, one that tackles the industry of sex? Maybe, maybe not, but it stands to reason that filmmakers are approaching the topic of sex in comedies somewhat differently, which makes a refreshing change of pace. People have, for the longest time, understood that sex can be an excruciatingly funny thing, and whether cinema opts to take advantage of that reality by making funny movies about people going after sex or the people offering the sex, be it in person, on the phone or via various toys, it is clear that the comedy potential can still grow if Hysteria and For A Good Time are any indication.
There is a lot to admire about director Travis’ effort, with most of the positives emerging out of the plentiful little insights into the phone sex industry the movie provides. Readers be warned, the film is by no means an educational experience, its purpose is to entertain first and foremost. That being said, through its various comedic set ups and payoffs there are little nuggets of information, some known to most, others regarding aspects people might not thing of just off the top of their heads, which enhance the film’s story as well as its depiction of the form of employment concerned, one that earns the scorn of many a puritanical and not so puritanical individual. It is established early on and quite clearly how lucrative such a venture is. When Lauren is desperate to earn a place in the publishing house she has long set her sights on, the discovery of how much Katie earns in a day and a few weeks opens her mind to the possibilities of testing new waters. How is it that Katie’s earnings can trump Lauren’s despite the latter’s staunch work ethic in a professional, highly competitive domain after years of schooling, training and practice? This should come as to no surprise to most, for the riches earned by the sex industry has for many years no longer been a secret, yet the impact of the revelation in the story, its contextualization, puts it into interesting perspective in For a Good Time.
Another pertinent segment of the picture is when, after having functioned as a receptionist of sorts to their new, independent phone sex business, Lauren decides the time as come to take a crack at offering some sex herself to alleviate Katie’s burden (hoarse voice!). Not just anybody can pick up the phone and talk dirty it seems. Nay, the reality of the situation is that it requires a certain skill set, one that must be taught and learned. The tone of voice, the pace, the fake moans of pleasure, the funny name calling, all of which must be juggled with a sense of unpredictability and improvisation. It is only after some training that Lauren is sufficiently equipped to perform her first call, at which point she is a little bit nervous, as is the case for many people who have sex for the first time.
A film about sex and in particular a film concentrating on the place of women in the sex industry seems like it would get some people’s boxers and panties in knots. There is always someone who wants to talk about the gender politics of such things. Does For a Good Time have anything of special note to say? It is a good question, although one for which the answer is quite uncertain. It goes without saying that phone sex is frowned upon by many in society. The movie, however, definitely has no pretension of hoping to make those individuals who would criticize such employees change their minds. This is a comedy after all, not social commentary. There are some intriguing dialogue exchanges, albeit brief ones, which reveal that in order to fully embrace the job, one needs a certain character. Prudishness will get one nowhere fast. Does that hold any specific meaning with regards to the fact that the characters are female? Perhaps, although if it has anything to do with the notion of how women can be just as comfortable and causal in sex as men, well, that is nothing new.
Curiously enough, if there is one significant criticism, it would that the film is not very funny. The characters are compelling, hence both Lauren Anne Miller and Ari Graynor deserve much credit for their warm, believable performances, but overall very few of the actual jokes land. There is an inherent silliness to the premise which itself serves as some comedic backbone, but whenever bits of dialogue are explicitly trying to be funny, it rarely works. Funnily enough (no pun intended), that does not seem to hurt the film that much. The story itself is interesting and, as previously mentioned, the two central characters are a lot of fun and have solid chemistry, therefore viewers will want to see how the story ends nonetheless. It would have been nice if their funny bits had been brushed up on some more. As it stands, the only lines that will probably produce laughter in the audience belong to Justin Long, who is far more a supporting player than anything else, popping in and out of the film every 15 minutes or so. Even then, it is the fast talking, pseudo-sophisticated New Yorker lingo brand of funny, not something that suits everyone’s tastes.
For a Good Time, Call… is a serviceable little film that rides its momentum on a good cast and a neat premise. Phone sex, while no longer a taboo subject, has never been the actual focus of a film before, hence some points for originality. However, it would earn a higher recommendation were it capable of tickling the funny bone some more.