I want you to know I felt like a creep lurking alone at a Sunday morning matinee of “For a Good Time, Call….”And although this occurred in San Francisco, probably the American city most conducive to solo church-hour viewing of movies full of moaning women, something about the experience seemed to need that disclaimer. Maybe it’s that I actually sorta liked it.
Weird, right? At first blush this is just some shabby romantic-comedyish confection, and not the first film with the idea to inflate an ostensible sitcom to feature length mostly by filling it with filthy talk. The premise is that two reluctant Manhattan roommates start a phone-sex business together, and the result is another possibly degrading female reclamation of the raunchy romp, more advanced than a mere smirking 90-minute loop of Meg Ryan in the diner from “When Harry Met Sally,” yet still below the bar set by “Bridesmaids.” But if “For a Good Time, Call…” can’t transcend innate limitations, it can and does coast smoothly on the essential odd-couple chemistry between its stars, Lauren Miller (who co-scripted, with Katie Anne Naylon) and Ari Graynor.
So, about the founding of fictive 1-900-MMM-HMMM. Funny story? Here and there, yes. At times very dully paced, it does convey an understanding that charging customers by the minute means stretching the minutes out. The movie lumbers to establish the circumstances by which prim, business-minded Lauren (Miller) came to live with Katie (Graynor), that blowsy twit who during college once got blotto and spilled a cupful of her own pee in Lauren’s face. Years later, at about the same time Lauren’s boring lawyer boyfriend (James Wolk) tells her she’s boring and leaves to sew his wild oats in Italy, Katie discovers herself financially unable to live alone in her late grandmother’s vast Gramercy Park apartment. The ladies’ longstanding mutual enmity proves no match for the administrative zeal of their mutual gay pal (Justin Long, loving it), and voila, they’re roomies; foul-mouthed frenemy frolic ensues.
It’s Katie who has the phone-sex thing going, just as a sporadic gig. (“This is New York City,” she explains. “Most people need more than one job.”) Lauren’s the one who turns it into their own private business. She’d wanted a career in publishing, but that doesn’t seem to be working out. These suggestions of economic hardship, by the way, should not imply any resemblance to reality. Even as it evolves into a sort of gender-reversed bromance, the movie is laden with genre cliches, not least a core of gold-hearted chastity. Yet it is at least perceptive enough to recognize the irony of verbal explicitness as communicatively inadequate, and to see how the difficulty of intimacy might give rise to a sex-as-joke defense mechanism.
The makers of “For a Good Time, Call…” might not seem immediately familiar, but they are sufficiently credentialed. Certainly Canadian director Jamie Travis has departed from the highly designed dreamtime of his festival-favorite “Patterns” trilogy of short films, but it seems telling that one essential image from that series is a drily coquettish woman fielding an intimate phone call in a bathtub. Now Travis has two briefly tub-situated young women to work with, and one of them, the co-writer, happens also to be Seth Rogen’s spouse and to have played the part of “Moaner and Groaner” in Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” (Rogen and Smith both make funny if overlong cameo appearances here, as calling clients.) The other has a great knack for playing a tacky, sweetly vulnerable spaz. Summoning the brassy oddity of a young Bette Midler and turning it loose in a Tina Fey world, Graynor conquers self-consciousness by repurposing vernacular ironic commentary as some new kind of sincerity. It’s hard to describe but easy to enjoy, and Miller is its perfectly encouraging foil.
Maybe I liked it because the vibe turned out more classy than creepy after all: For all its obviously contemporary vulgarity, the movie’s double-entendre-intensive finale isn’t just a cute payoff but clever enough to seem like something Billy Wilder might have liked to do, before it was possible. And in the right light — on a Sunday morning, say — “For a Good Time, Call…” looks downright subversive: This is a movie whose most obscene gesture might actually be the sudden whipping out of a crucifix.