Just Tell Me What You Want (DVD Review)10 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Ali MacGraw, Alan King, Peter Weller, Myrna Loy.
One scene does not a movie make, yet it’s also true that an incontrovertible bulls-eye can soften up the viewer enough to give the rest a benefit of the doubt, assuming an acceptable level of narrative adequacy is maintained.
Sandwiched by director Sidney Lumet between two higher-profile projects of wildly contrasting merit (dreadful The Wiz and first-rank Prince of the City), this brittle romantic comedy has a scene that just about everyone remembers if they know the movie — even if they blank on its title. I’m talking about the set piece where Ali MacGraw attacks Alan King inside and out front of Bergdorf Goodman’s in New York City — leaping on him, pummeling him with her purse and not letting it go with just two or three physical salvos. There’s even some minor King retaliation, though I suspect the refs would give his assailant all 15 rounds.
MacGraw never put as much zeal into her acting as into this splendid assault, though she probably got the best reviews of her career here (read: passable ones) for playing the queen mistress of many kept by tycoon King in the one king-sized movie lead that this prime standup comic ever got. MacGraw is in her early 40s here playing 35, and the abortion her character has just gotten probably wouldn’t be dropped so casually into the script (by frequent Lumet collaborator Jay Presson Allen) were the movie made today. This is a woman trying to maintain a modicum of control over her life — one who, despite having won four Emmys, has someone else paying the tab for her posh apartment and a predictable volume of gift jewels.
It’s brave of the movie to make King’s character as abrasive as he is — a bellowing in-your-face personality that dovetails naturally with the late performer’s standard persona, which had previously been a fixture on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I can remember as a child suspecting that it was a little aggressive for Midwest audiences who got their weekly taste of New York City every Sunday night on CBS, though speaking personally, it was angry invective I enjoyed. It spoke to me when King ranted about having just purchased a home across the street from the grade school — but that his kid couldn’t go to it because the family didn’t live in “the zone.” Something pretty close had happened in the Clark household.
In terms of family relationships here, King — cast as “Max Herschel” — has a surprisingly good one with his daughter and a terrible one with his wife (Dina Merrill), an institutionalized alcoholic whose sorry state he has probably perpetuated. His method is to find receptive young pretties, shell out a lot of bucks to iron out their rough spots and make them part of a stable in which MacGraw reigns. The problem comes when she, who’s pretty savvy herself, takes up with a young playwright (future RoboCop Peter Weller) who is naïve enough to get eaten alive by Max. The two relative youngsters merely provide the backdrop for their string-puller’s rantings and ravings, and if you want to gauge how valuable King is to the picture (artistically, if not commercially), try thinking what it would be like were it merely a love story between MacGraw and Weller.
Some of the latter’s wheeling and dealing involves movie production — insider subject matter that was probably the final box office nail in Tell Me’s coffin atop a verbally brutal central character. It’s interesting, though, how big a deal Max makes out of securing library negatives when he purchases a movie studio he otherwise doesn’t want. Tell Me came out in mid-January — making it one of the 1980s’ first releases — when the home video market and cable movie stations were really in their infancy. Max was on to something: It’s doubtful he wanted all those negatives to exploit the marginal repertory cinema market.
And by just squeaking in as an ‘80s release, Tell Me enabled the great Myrna Loy — who is spottable on screen at least back to films from the mid-1920s — to have been a movie presence in seven different decades. Loy plays the corporate executive assistant who’s capable of placating the boss but will only take so much guff. She’s wonderful here in her final big-screen feature, and when she disappears for much of its second half, the movie really feels it. So if your taste doesn’t run to department store slugfests, Loy is a reason to see it as well.