Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Slick direction, dialog doesn't camouflage characters

Cleveland Press March 1, 1980

"Just Tell Me What You Want" is an anti-romantic romantic comedy.

It is "Love Story" for misanthropists.

It is a sometimes funny, tough, shallow story about a group of sometimes funny, tough, shallow people.

The slick direction of Sydney Lumet ("Network") and the tough, bantering dialog of writer Jay Presson Allen ("Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "Cactus Flower') almost, but not quite camouflage the fact that these are very crummy people about whom we are asked to care.

(I don't object to crummy people per se. Just don't ask me to care about them.)

What we are supposed to worry about is the crisis in the otherwise happy lives of Max Herschel (Alan King) and Bones Burton (All MacGraw). They are lovers who have had a falling out. They also are foul-mouthed opportunists.

Max is rich and powerful, one of the richest and most powerful in the country. Bones is his mistress, actually one of a number but the chief concubine. She has parlayed her role into that of one of Manhattan's bright people, a TV celebrity after Max bought her her own production company. The fact that she did something with it proves she has talents outside the bedroom.

It's a variation on the old boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-again routine with variations. The main variation is that the getting is all subject to financial negotiation.

Which doesn't make the situation differ too much from what happens nightly around Times Square in New York or on parts of Prospect Ave. in Cleveland -- it's only a matter of degree.

None of this would matter too much if the film had any degree of dramatic sense. It doesn't. It raises questions about what makes people tick and then doesn't answer them.

Unless indicating that the answer is greed is sufficient. But the movie pretends to more than that.

There are subplots about Herschel's sharp business dealings (he is out- chiseled by another chiseler), his penchant for taking his pick of the secretarial pool and what passes for his devotion to his alcoholic wife (Dina Merrill) who is presented in a situation that is supposed to be funny.

The crisis comes when Bones meets an idealistic young playwright (Peter Weller). Max has been cheating on her (if that's possible) and has been more patronizing than usual.

In a burst of independence she marries the playwright. In a burst of anger, Max retaliates -- cuts off her credit cards, puts her out of the television business, gets her blackballed, even works a deal to get her new husband out of town.

The title comes from an oft-repeated phrase used by Max who maintains everyone has a price. The story pretends to negate that philosophy, then ends up reinforcing it.

For all of the biting dialog the film's chief humor proves to be purely physical. In a scene that will be remembered long after the film has been deservedly forgotten, Bones battles Max in the posh Bergdorf-Goodman department store.

It's a lovely battle as battles go. She smashes him with her purse in neck ties, tackles him in sportswear and kicks him in the groin in fashion' footwear.

King is ideally cast as a man you love to hate. MacGraw does her best work in years. Both are outclassed, however, by veteran Myrna Loy as Max's confidential secretary and hatchet woman. She plays her role with a greater awareness of what was intended than the rest of the cast.