Ah, 2011. Back when you could build a whole romantic comedy around the premise of a woman reading a magazine article. Throw in some strange sexual politics, a script that feels like it was written by an algorithm, and an ensemble cast of every up-and-coming comedic actor from the 2010s, and you’ve got What’s Your Number?, a sort of last-gasp of big studio rom-com filmmaking as the genre barreled towards a cliff. But What’s Your Number? has one thing that no other rom-com of its era had: Anna Faris and Chris Evans. They’re a 21st-century Lucille Ball meets a real-life Troy Bolton—a duo who transform the movie from totally forgettable to agreeably amiable every time they’re on screen together.
For all its flaws, What’s Your Number? avoids the biggest hurdle that rom-coms faced in the late aughts: how increasingly difficult it was to get big-name male stars to appear in them if they weren’t at the top of the call sheet. That’s how you end up with something like Colin Egglesfield’s disastrous casting in Something Borrowed. But Evans is the perfect relaxed foil for Faris’ enjoyably high-key antics. Working on the film sparked a real-life friendship between the two actors, as detailed on a 2016 episode of Faris’ podcast. And their genuine chemistry is the crucial grounding force that keeps What’s Your Number? from going off the rails.
Faris is Ally Darling, an aimless Bostonian who panics after reading a Marie Claire article that claims the average American woman has 10.5 sexual partners in their lifetime. Already at double that number, Ally decides to track down her old boyfriends in the hopes of settling down with one of them without breaking the social taboo of sleeping with more than 20 people. For help, she ropes in her womanizing neighbor/amateur private detective Colin (Evans), fending off his own attempts to hit on her until a game of strip basketball at the Boston Garden eventually forces them to finally reveal their feelings for one another. A relatable love story if there ever was one.
To modern eyes, What’s Your Number? is a fascinating time capsule, and not just because of the oversized cargo shorts Evans wears throughout. He was in the strange post-Fantastic Four, pre-Captain America period of his career—an era that also led to rom-com roles in The Nanny Diaries and his enjoyably subversive turn in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. After much hemming and hawing, he accepted Marvel’s offer to play Cap just five days after he was cast in What’s Your Number? The rom-com pushed back its release date in the hopes of capitalizing on Captain America’s buzzy summer debut. But what actually happened is that the R-rated What’s Your Number? was unfavorably compared to Bridesmaids (and to a lesser degree, Bad Teacher) during the summer that famously proved that, hey, women can be funny too— even, and maybe especially, when they’re being raunchy.
What’s Your Number? ultimately failed to connect with either critics or audiences, even as Captain America launched Evans to new heights. It’s one of the many moments in which Faris and Evans’ dovetailing careers offer a pointed case study in Hollywood gender disparity in the early aughts, when rom-coms faded from fashion and superhero movies rose to take their place. Faris and Evans both got their start in goofy parody movies, her making fun of horror flicks in 2000’s Scary Movie and him sending up teen rom-coms in 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie. But while Evans quickly became a go-to Hollywood hunk in films like The Perfect Score and Cellular, Faris faced a much bigger uphill battle when it came to carving out her own career.
Though she delivered memorably off-kilter performances in films like Just Friends and The House Bunny, Faris struggled to establish herself as a commercially viable leading lady—a battle she still seems to be fighting to this day. Around the time Evans stepped into his first starring superhero role, Faris found herself playing a second fiddle superhero love interest in My Super Ex-Girlfriend. It’s the sort of part Faris dismissively refers to as a “bounce-card role,” where the job is to giggle, look pretty, and reflect all the light back onto the male star. “I hated being on that movie so much I was glad when it bombed,” Faris admitted. “These roles are destroying a generation of boys, who think we’ll forgive any kind of assholey behavior.”
That quote comes from a New Yorker profile that uses Faris’ career as a springboard to explore the state of women in Hollywood comedies circa the spring of 2011. And it paints an incredibly bleak portrait of just how bad things were pre-Bridesmaids, both for Hollywood in general and What’s Your Number? in particular. At one point, Faris describes shooting a scene you can still see in the film’s extended edition, in which Ally poses as Colin’s distraught fiancée to help him get rid of a naked hook-up who won’t leave his apartment:
Some studio exec basically said, “Get some tits in the movie.” So we did a reshoot where I go in to save Colin from this naked woman, the morning after, and it was so obvious it was a tit shot that when she got up in my face I said “Tits!” just to make it clear what we were doing.
As director Mark Mylod acknowledged, “The whole process is desperately sexist. But there it is.” And coming from a man who co-executive produced Entourage, that’s really saying something.
Reading that New Yorker piece made me much more sympathetic toward what What’s Your Number? was trying to do and the ways in which it was hindered by sexist double standards. Buried somewhere in the movie is a sex-positive rom-com that doubles as an ode to messy, offbeat women—one encapsulated by the moment Ally proudly yells, “I’m a jobless whore who slept with 20 guys, and I want to be with somebody who appreciates that about me!” The script came from screenwriting partners and TV vets Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden, who adapted the story from Karyn Bosnak’s novel 20 Times A Lady. They were hoping to bring some Bridget Jones messiness back to a genre that had become increasingly dominated by Type-A, Katherine Heigl characters. But it was a constant battle to create anything authentically uncouth.
The New Yorker article cites one “prominent producer” as saying, “Both men and women can relate to Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop, who’s the little guy being shat upon. If that character is played by Tina Fey, it wouldn’t work, for the same reason that men can’t relate to Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones. Men just don’t understand the nuances of female dynamics.” It’s the sort of statement that’s so close to parody, you wouldn’t even need to heighten it in a Hollywood satire.
So What’s Your Number? is a movie filled with concessions to an audience of imaginary men. Faris, who also served as an executive producer, originally wanted Ally to be a grungy bohemian who wore comfy T-shirts, had tousled hair, and wasn’t stick thin. But the studio insisted she replicate her sexpot House Bunny look instead. Faris spent a month working out in the gym with a trainer, and lived on a diet of mostly turkey slices and carrot sticks throughout the shoot. Even Ally’s wardrobe got a glam makeover. “It still bothers me,” Faris told The New Yorker before the film’s release. “Why would Ally be unemployed and wearing Prada shoes?” But she also concedes, “I felt they might have pulled the movie if we fought any further.”
To be fair, the film also spends a good amount of time ogling Evans in various stages of muscled undress, so there’s at least some equality at play on that front. But the problem is that styling Ally as a generically glamorous fashion plate really takes away from what nominal characterization she’s supposed to have. In While You Were Sleeping, Sandra Bullock’s slouchy sweaters immediately paint a portrait of a certain kind of cozy introversion. In What’s Your Number?, Faris has to shape a character who’s completely at odds with her own wardrobe.
It’s not hard to imagine the better movie What’s Your Number? might have been allowed to be in a post-Bridesmaids, post-Girls world. It would have more fun with montages of Ally’s madcap sexual escapades with her exes, who are played by the likes of Andy Samberg, Joel McHale, Zachary Quinto, Martin Freeman, Anthony Mackie, and Faris’ then-husband Chris Pratt. But the studio was obsessed with ensuring that Ally remain “likable,” which resulted in a lot of sanded-down comedic half measures. Some of these are still funny, like the reveal that Ally used a fake British accent while dating Freeman’s character—exactly the sort of ridiculous bit that Faris is uniquely great at selling. But most of them are just lazy, like the one-note sight gag of Pratt in a fat suit.
The fact that half of What’s Your Number?’s male ensemble have gone on to star in superhero movies or other big genre blockbusters also drives home another inequity of modern Hollywood. The type of high-profile rom-coms that used to make women megastars in the ’90s no longer really exist (potentially because studio execs noted them to death). And with women still drastically underrepresented in superhero films, there’s no clear career path to full-on movie stardom for someone like Faris, who spent the years after What’s Your Number? starring on the CBS sitcom Mom before giving rom-coms another go in the commercially successful/critically panned Overboard remake.
Evans has also continued to make rom-coms (including one he directed himself), even well into his run as Captain America. He and Faris actually bring a lot of the same strengths to their rom-com performances. Evans once inadvertently summed up their shared appeal: “I can speak fluent bro, but I don’t consider myself one… I was a big theater dork in high school, you know what I mean?” There’s a certain humbleness to their onscreen personas, a “just happy to be there” vibe that’s infectious to watch, especially when they’re paired together. The best moments of What’s Your Number? put that breezy charisma to good use. (There are even a couple scenes where Evans sings!) It’s just too bad the rest of the movie is so by the numbers.
Next time: We kick off Pride Month with Alice Wu’s excellent indie Saving Face.