Just Tell Me What You Want (1980)

| January 18, 1980

I have a feeling that if Just Tell Me What You Want were in the hands of a lesser director and came from a lesser screenwriter, then I could easily dump the picture and move on.  Yet, I can’t.  I have mixed feelings about it.  It has a plot that is distasteful and a romance that I didn’t care about, but it was directed with skill by Sidney Lumet and written by Jay Presson Allen (Cabaret) who based the film on her own novel –  you can see their skilled hands all over the production.  And with that, I say that it isn’t very good, but I can say that with affection.  Because it is so skillfully made, it turns out to be a bad film that tricks you into thinking that it’s a good film.

Part of the problem is that it’s a romance featuring two people that I found impossible to care about. particularly the leading lady played by Ali MacGraw, an actress who has always grated on my nerves.  She’s not much of an actor – she was serviceable in Love Story but her choices after that did nothing for her.

She plays a brass balls television producer named “Bones” Burton who uses her wealthy sugar daddy Max Hershel (Alan King) for financial gain and then runs off to be with a handsome young writer (Peter Weller) when she finds out Max is fooling around with other women.  Theirs isn’t a romance, it’s a colorful spite game that comes to a head when she runs off and he tries to exact revenge on her to prove that she was just whoring with him, nevermind the fact that is a pillar in the television industry.

Bones is shallow, but Max, in a nutshell, is a putz.  As a lover, he treats women like Kleenex.  As a businessman he’s a bastard – buying up a movie studio just so he can liquidate it.  They have been in a tryst for the past decade or so, he’s seen her rise to the top of her profession and now that she’s leaving him, he treats her as if he’s being betrayed by a business partner.

This is a plot that I can’t get behind.  The participants are shallow, their motivations are repugnant and their story is half-tracked.  I never felt that they ever had any kind of heat between then and, you know what?, I didn’t care.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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