With some failed films, it’s easy to identify the main problem—bad timing, a miscast actor, a weak script—but with others, diagnosing what went wrong requires a more holistic approach. Nearly everyone involved in the flop romantic comedy Just Tell Me What You Want is highly proficient, from director Sidney Lumet to leading man Alan King, and the film is impeccable from a technical perspective. Plus, it’s not as if Jay Presson Allen’s script, adapted from her own novel, is a complete disaster; although the jokes don’t land and the tone is all over the place, the character work is strong. And while it’s always easy to blame the failure of an Ali MacGraw movie on MacGraw, one of the least skilled actors ever to achieve above-the-title stardom, it wasn’t impossible for gifted directors to pull serviceable work out of her, as Lumet occasionally does here.
So the problem with Just Tell Me What You Want is simply everything about the movie. It’s a comedy that isn’t funny, a romance about self-absorbed people whose love lives don’t engender empathy, and a narrative mishmash blending boardroom intrigue, showbiz satire, and other elements into an overarching storyline far too meager to support the extra weight of thematic heaviosity. However because Just Tell Me What You Want is made so well, it’s a bad film that looks and feels very much like a good film.
The main plot involves the on-again/off-again romance between super-rich businessman Max Hershel (King) and his mistress, TV producer “Bones” Burton (MacGraw). How much of a prick is Max? He put his alcoholic wife into an institution, he yells at his employees, he makes degrading sexual remarks to every young woman he encounters, and he casually drops the c-word when denigrating ladies who anger him. He’s also a ruthless businessman, planning to buy a movie studio just so he can liquidate assets and pave over the studio’s physical plant. “Bones” isn’t any more appealing. A cynical careerist who uses her relationship with Max for financial gain, she casually embarks on an affair with a young writer (Peter Weller), perhaps because she’s aware that Max regularly dallies with other women. And when circumstances inevitably drive “Bones” and Max apart, he exacts cruel revenge by seizing all her financial assets, suggesting she was essentially a whore living off his largesse, despite her Emmy-winning stature in the TV industry.
Viewed in the broadest strokes, Just Tell Me What You Want is thoroughly distasteful—but closer inspection reveals attributes. King gives a terrifically committed performance, and MacGraw is livelier than usual, though still quite stilted. Supporting players Weller, Myrna Loy (in her last screen appearance), and Kennan Wynn are wonderful. And every so often, a truthful insight emerges through the dense fog of Allen’s pretentious dialogue. Whether you’re willing to tolerate the movie’s shortcomings might depend on your ability to endure Max spewing this kind of vitriol: “I wouldn’t call that bitch a taxi to take her to hell!” Romantic comedy? Not so much. Acidic character study? Closer to the mark.
Just Tell Me What You Want: FUNKY