Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Neglected Gem #26: Just Tell Me What You Want (1980)

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.

Lumet’s best known and deservedly praised films, 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The Verdict (1982) and Prince of the City (1981), tend towards the serious – the overrated Network (1976) was more of an outrageous but serious-minded satire than pure comedy – so it’s a distinct pleasure to see him going a bit lighter for a change, though even this movie has much of value to say about corporatism, financial excesses and American culture. Mostly though, as scripted by frequent Lumet collaborator Jay Presson Allen (Prince of the City, Deathtrap (1982), The Verdict) adapting her 1969 novel Just Tell Me What You Want!, (the exclamation point was unnecessarily excised from the film's title), it’s an occasionally uneven but often uproariously funny movie, even veering into slapstick when Herschel and Routledge go at it in a winner-takes-all brawl. Before that fight, we’re witness to Bones physically thrashing Herschel, to within an inch of his life, in the bowels of swanky department store Bergdorf Goodman, no less, one of Lumet’s best uses of his beloved New York City landmarks.

Peter Weller in  Just Tell Me What You Want
There’s good work on tap from Wynn; Myrna Loy (The Thin Man movies), in her last film, as Herschel’s patient secretary, Stella, who knows all his secrets; Dina Merrill, as his disturbed wife, Connie; and Tony Roberts (Annie Hall), who pops up briefly as Max Berger’s’ fey son, Mike. But it’s basically a two-hander between King and MacGraw. Though the veteran comic regularly appeared in movies, such as Paul Mazusky’s Enemies: A Love Story (1989), it’s Lumet who consistently gave him some of his best parts, notably in The Anderson Tapes (1971) and Bye Bye Braverman (1968), another rare Lumet comedy. Here, King’s Max Herschel can be a loathsome, profane, even ugly man who speaks nastily and acts even worse but somehow he’s also, deep down, something of a pussycat, but so buried is that aspect of his persona that only Bones and, perhaps, Stella, know that it is there at all. King, an unlikely leading man, keeps you watching and guessing as to what he might do next. And MacGraw (Love Story - 1970) almost matches him scene for scene; it’s the only film besides Goodbye, Columbus (1969), where she demonstrates any edge or personality.

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

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