POSTED ON OCTOBER 5, 2011:
Humor eludes the should-be-funny chick flick and heart-felt sincerity pours from Africa
In France, the new Anna Faris/Chris Evans-starring rom-com What's Your Number? is known as (S)ex List. Aside from the more succinctly crafted title, I doubt the French version of it is any funnier, though -- unless it has terrible dubbing.
Made watchable by the screen charisma and chemistry of its leads Faris and Evans, What's Your Number? is so by-the-numbers that one imagines the script's pages being shot out of a multi-colored light bulb-festooned, monolithic supercomputer (like WOPR from War Games) designed for only one purpose: Make a romantic comedy that, theoretically, is the same as every other romantic comedy that people kind of liked then promptly forgot about it while walking to the parking lot.
Only the hook changes; the catalyst that sets off a lovelorn girl on convoluted, yet deeply familiar narrative paths, while the audience already knows who she's going to end up with. What's Your Number? even had the added disadvantage of a long running trailer that gave away every beat of the film's arc and its best anemic jokes. Consider that a public service.
Anna Faris is Ally Darling (seriously?) the lovelorn, somewhat slutty Boston girl who makes horrible sexual decisions when she drinks. After getting the commitment shaft from Spock (Zachary Quinto) and fired from her marketing gig -- then getting drunk and screwing her ex-boss (Joe McHale) -- Ally is shocked to learn from a Marie Claire article that women who have slept with over twenty guys stand little chance of finding marital bliss. The national average is 10.5.
Meanwhile, she lives across the hall from Colin Shea (Evans), a lothario musician with a Boy Scout's face on a Greek God's body, who serial fucks his way through his week. Colin finds Ally's apartment to be a fitting place to hide from his one-night stands until they muster the self-respect to go home. Of course, Ally seems utterly immune to his charms even though everyone in the audience already knows they have another hour and ten minutes to sit through until they get together.
In the interim, it turns out Colin is also a policeman's son, and thus adept at tracking people down. So when Ally decides she's not going to sleep with her arbitrarily chosen 21st lover until she's sure he's "the one", she has a retarded epiphany -- brought on by her sister's imminent wedding -- that she can stay at the magic number of 20 by giving a second chance to one of her old conquests. She enlists Colin to help her find her bygone Mr. Right.
And if hilarity ensued that would be one thing, since What's Your Number? is a film that reeks of sit-com conceit: completely shallow, formulaic and disposable. But it doesn't, and what we are left with is a shopworn template, a Mad Libs movie that that plugs different, thinly drawn characters into the blanks. A couple of chortle-worthy moments, delivered by two fine comedic actors in search of a better movie only underscore the shoddiness of the entire affair.
Directed by television vet Mark Mloyd (Entourage) and adapted from Karyn Bosnak's novel "20 Times a Lady" by Gabrielle Allan (Scrubs) and Jennifer Crittenden (Seinfeld), What's Your Number? misdials almost every element.
Ally and Colin are paper thin characters on the page, whose generic nature is only subverted by the game performances from Faris and Evans. Ally is an empty vessel whose numerical malaise has all the weight of an empty edamame shell as she bounces through the narrative twists like a pinball. Faris is not helped by a script that has her getting fired to prove she actually had a job, which is only a device to get her in bed with her old boss and set in motion the 20 dicks or less conceit.
Colin, meanwhile, is that classic, laid-back frat boy living a perfect (for him) life in Boston -- perhaps the most expensive city in the U.S. in which to live -- with no visible means of support. All charm and no substance, all Colin has to offer Ally is a faux-hemian, slacker demeanor in a ripped torso. They really are perfect for each other since Ally feels about as real as overstuffed breast implants. Plot threads are introduced and left behind with the regularity of a dysentery victim.
Even worse, What's Your Number? is a fairly ugly and technically inept film. Bad blocking and shot compositions are exacerbated by amateurish editing, awful lighting and ugly cinematography that, in some scenes, inexplicably find the camera wheeling around characters or employing grandiose, swooping crane shots for no real reason connected to cinematic syntax. Visually all over the map, there hasn't been an uglier looking comedy since Cop Out. (I'm never letting that flick go.)
The only thing this R-rated Movie of the Week has going for it are the performances from Faris and Evans (and a few nice cameos by the likes of Ed Begley, Martin Freeman and Andy Samberg among others) who elevate the rote script and intermittently cute jokes through sheer force of charm.
Granted, this entire review is just a caveat for suicidal guys who might wind up seeing this out of duty to their girlfriends. What's Your Number? won't give them a reason to change their minds.
Their girlfriends will like it, though.
Life, Above All
Life is funny, heartbreaking and darkly beautiful for Chanda, a young South African girl who must learn to fight for her family and herself in Life, Above All. But unlike What's Your Number? the television background of its makers is not a detriment. While it has some overly obvious moments, Life, Above All is film done well.
Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) is the oldest girl of a broken South African family. Her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is trying to make ends meet after the death of her first husband and despite the alcoholism of her current one, Jonah (Audrey Poolo). She's helped by her neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), a well-meaning but sometimes harsh family friend.
Things are bad right out of the gate. The youngest child of Lillian and Jonah has died and Jonah goes on a bender blaming Lillian's "milk", vanishing to leave the ailing Lillian to her own devices. Chanda is forced to obtain the tiny coffin for her dead step-sister.
Meanwhile, poverty and hearsay surround Chanda's only friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), a young girl with nothing to call her own in life but Chanda's friendship and loyalty. Poverty has forced the nearly pre-pubescent girl to turn tricks at a dusty truck stop. Mrs. Tafa cannot abide Esther, and the social mores of the village threaten to destroy the only friendship either of them has.
Worse, when it becomes clear that her mother is getting sicker, along with her errant step-father, the bulk of their village begins to turn against the family as the obviousness of their disease makes itself apparent (though Chanda remains in the dark about her mother's ultimate illness, perhaps willingly), ostracizing the family from all but their closest friends.
So, to protect them, Lillian leaves Chanda and the other two children behind to live alone under the watchful eye of Mrs. Tafa, never intending to return. Now the head of the house, Chanda must assert herself -- and rise above the suspicions and prejudices of her community to reclaim her family and her life.
Based on the 2004 novel "Chanda's Secrets", Life, Above All is a fairly compelling piece of slice-of-life cinema that opens a small window into a realm most of us will never know. Directed with an able hand by Oliver Schmitz, the film has a wonderful detachment from its characters, one that allows the audience to feel a part of, and empathize with their world. His South Africa is not a starvation-ridden place of squalor. The people have to scrape to make it, but what they have is a decent little corner of the world, which makes their willingness to destroy the remnants of Chanda's family all the more barbaric.
Adapted by Dennis Foon, the story can get a little heavy-handed at times, with the hushed seriousness with which the not so mysterious disease is revealed, and the monolithic villagers who seem awfully superstitious of its victims for the modern age. But this is all about the characters, and it's in the sometimes rich performances that Life, Above All reaps it's most potent moments. The clean, sharp cinematography by Bernhard Jasper paints a striking picture of the often gorgeous South African landscapes, lending yet another layer of mysterious, idyllic beauty to contrast the villager's often ugly nature.
Life, Above All isn't going to win any awards for subtlety, but its fine visuals and memorable performances make up for some of the heavy-handedness of a story that might float away entirely with a lighter touch.
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