|Ali MacGraw and Alan King in Sidney Lumet's Just Tell Me What You Want|
Sidney Lumet's underrated caustic comedy Just Tell Me What You Want is one of the final gasps of the American cinema of the 1970s, the decade in which it was made, and another example of what was, in retrospect, the last Golden Age of American moviemaking. It was a time when the films were inventive, honest and, most significantly, made relevant commentaries on American society and its concerns.
The film centres on Max Herschel (Alan King), the very definition of a rapacious corporate mogul and his love/hate relationship with his long-time mistress, television producer Bones Burton (Ali MacGraw). Though she is grateful to Herschel for his largesse which helped her establish a career independent of him, she decides she’s had enough of waiting for him to formalize their clandestine affair and leaves him for a younger man, playwright Steven Routledge (Peter Weller). That sets off a vendetta against Burton on Herschel’s part, even while he bumps up against canny long-time business rival Max Berger (Keenan Wynn), who takes advantage of his distracted personal life.
|Peter Weller in Just Tell Me What You Want|
The film’s uncompromising and unpredictable ending is of a piece with the decade that also brought us The Godfather, I and II (1972 and 1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Nashville (1976), and many of Lumet’s movies, among so many memorable others. It’s not a comfortable finale, nor does it proffer a happy outcome, but it rings utterly true. Moviegoers who like sentiment in their films, and die-hard feminists, will hate it, but others will find it well worth checking out. It’s an anti-romantic comedy which in today’s cinema, where almost all movie love stories play out in an obvious and contrived manner, will likely shock or surprise you. That’s the point, of course, as Lumet and Allen show us just how paper-thin the line between love and hate can really be.
– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses and will also be reprising his course, Intelligent Art and Meticulous Craft: The Social Cinema of Sidney Lumet, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (Bloor and Spadina - Toronto), beginning Monday October 15 from 7-9 p.m: http://mnjcc.org/arts/900-intelligent-art-and-meticulous-craft-the-social-cinema-of-sidney-lumet