Earlier this year, the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids celebrated its 10th anniversary, and the anniversary of several turning points: In the careers of star and co-writer Kristen Wiig, director Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow; in the wresting of arrested-adolescence narratives away from the usual Apatow boys; in tortured but long-overdue thinkpieces about “women in comedy.” Speaking of those comedy thinkpieces: About a month before Bridesmaids opened in theaters everywhere, The New Yorker published a detailed profile by Tad Friend entitled “Funny Like a Guy,” referring to the comic magic of Anna Faris, who was then preparing her new comedy What’s Your Number? for release. The article paid tribute to her talent while chronicling the resistance of studio executives to let female comedians get too outrageous. The movie came out some months later and celebrates its own 10th anniversary this week.
“Celebrates” probably oversells its case. What’s Your Number? was not a Bridesmaids-sized hit. It was not even a Bride Wars-sized hit. It made $5 million and change on its opening weekend (and would have slightly less than that, had I not dragged half a dozen friends to its opening night for my birthday party). At the time, it was one of the five worst openings ever for a movie debuting in at least 3,000 theaters. Its fortunes did not improve from there, neither at the domestic box office nor in the minds of cinema scholars. By way of contrast, Faris’s comedy Smiley Face, from a few years earlier, made even less—it was barely released in theaters—but has since earned warm, lasting embraces from comedy fans and stoners. Number is far less beloved than the revealing magazine article it inspired.
The movie itself is, in fact, premised on a magazine article, though nothing so lofty as a New Yorker profile. Ally Darling (Faris), an unlucky-in-love and recently fired single woman, is feeling low when she reads a Marie Claire piece claiming that statistically, women who have slept with more than 20 men are unlikely to get married. Hovering around the big two-zero herself, Ally really leans into the high-concept lifestyle and takes it upon herself to track down past exes and see if any of them have evolved into husband material. It’s High Fidelity by way of wedding-fixated 2000s rom-coms. It also more or less killed Faris’s career as a cinematic leading lady.
Since Number, Faris has kept busy with voice work, a few supporting parts and a leading role on the well-regarded CBS sitcom Mom, as well as a popular podcast, but she wasn’t the unequivocal lead in another movie until the 2018 remake of Overboard. It seems pretty clear that Number was her shot at next-level stardom after the success of The House Bunny; instead of completing her ascent, it abruptly and messily concludes a very loose trilogy of starring vehicles, with Smiley Face, House Bunny and What’s Your Number? serving as an unintentional guide to wrestling with 2000s-era femininity.
In Smiley Face, Faris plays a frequently stoned layabout—also an actress!—whose daily struggles increase when she accidentally ingests far too many pot-laced cupcakes to function, then has to go about her day anyway. In The House Bunny, she mainstreams her cheerful haplessness as a Playboy bunny ejected from the mansion and finding new purpose as a den mother to nerdy sorority girls. The pitch seems to be: Yes, give us goofy Anna Faris, with her baby rasp, helplessly readable facial expressions and inimitable line deliveries where she treats certain words like she’s discovering a new flavor—but don’t make her too yucky or sloppy! House Bunny succeeds because the sloppiness survives and makes a funny, slapsticky contrast with her character’s centerfold exterior. What’s Your Number? has less cartoony aspirations, and keeps settling its star down. It makes sense as a breaking point, though obviously not what Faris intended.
The movie is Faris’s take on both the glossy romantic comedy of the 2000s and the R-rated comedies that largely replaced them. It has enough parallel thinking with Bridesmaids (which was in production around the same time) to open with a scene nearly identical to one from the Kristen Wiig comedy: Ally wakes up before her bedmate and surreptitiously cleans herself up and applies makeup before sneaking back to bed, faking a more polished morning face. It’s a perfect metaphor for what’s being asked of Faris herself; the movie’s sexual politics are frequently muddled, perhaps because too many of its punchlines are verbal (and weak) jokes about supposed promiscuity and/or relatability, rather than digging into Ally’s specific behavior. As chronicled in the New Yorker piece, the movie is fairly shameless in its desire to balance “relatable” career-gal-next-door cuteness and pinup-next-door exposed skin—with only tantalizing flashes of Faris’s messier sensibility. Sometimes, it feels like a rushed conclusion to Faris’s big-screen arc, like studio executives were trying to resolve her fate so they could move on to someone more conventional.
But Number doesn’t necessarily deserve either its radioactive reception nor its subsequent decay. (An extended version on DVD plays a bit better still, both bawdier and a little more nuanced.) For one, it’s sometimes genuinely sexy, almost in spite of itself; Faris’s co-star Chris Evans (playing a textbook charming-cad role) gets as naked as she does (which is to say, both frequently and demurely). More importantly, Faris makes a winning rom-com antiheroine, even if the movie around her can’t fully accept the “anti” bit. There’s funny pathos in the way she turns “I’m always growing out my bangs” into an expression of faraway lament, or mutters “this is bullshit” while engaging in climactic rom-com shenanigans. Speaking of bullshit: The least believable moment of the movie is its final one, where she must fake ecstatic relief over having slept with one fewer guy than she previously thought. It’s unconvincing precisely because her comic voice remains intact.
Still, that voice is something she has to fight for, in a movie that keeps trying to tame her unruly, hilarious persona into something more palatable. And as often happens when movies get noted to death, the audience’s “no thanks” reaction was interpreted as a vindication: Even in brightly colored, wedding-centric, vaguely slut-shame-y form, Anna Faris was just too much. So she more or less hopped off the movie train, just as American films were starting to catch up to comedies about women who screw up, with movies like Frances Ha and Obvious Child. Faris tried to drag this character into broader studio comedies with Judy Holliday zing, and got put through the wringer instead. Ten years on, it feels ridiculous that a performer who could so adeptly play broad comedy and scene-stealing character parts in Oscar movies (she’s in both Brokeback Mountain and Lost in Translation!) would need to play the same part on a CBS sitcom for six seasons. Has enough changed in the past decade to eliminate the wavering over her movie career? Maybe any newfound freedom just means she’ll sign on for a few ten-episode seasons of a streaming show that gets lost in the churn. Or maybe Anna Faris can take a crack at making a glorious mess of middle age.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.