Telltale remnants of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" are visible beneath the posh, eat-your-hearts-out-you-peasants amorality of "Just Tell Me What You Want." It's a pity that writer Jay Presson Allen didn't borrow more astutely from the plot of the venerable Kaufman & Hart farce.
Allen's updated comedy of despotic manners leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, suggesting that even a sulphurous whiff of high living makes it difficult to keep one's values intact. Ostensibly a satire of ruthless egotism, "Just Tell Me What You Want" pulls such a fast one on itself -- perhaps the price of keeping company -- that Allen and director Sidney Lumet end up endorsing the very selfishness and vanity they appeared to deplore.
The comedic monster of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," a rude, sneaky, domineering literary celebrity named Sheridan Whiteside (patterned after Alexander Woolcott), has been reincarnated here in coarse form: a business tycoon named Max Herschel, presumably an exaggerated composite of the big shots and movie moguls Allen has encountered in a 20-year playwriting and screenwriting career. The role is played at overbearing full-throttle by comedian Alan King, evidently encouraged to keep the neurotic pressure up, up, up and never allow Max a relaxed moment, disinterested motive or hint of self-deprecating humor.
In "The Man Who Came to Dinner," Whiteside has an invaluable secretary. Threatened with the inconvenience of her infatuation with a young playwright, Whiteside attempted to break up the romance -- but accepted defeat gracefully in the last scene.
In Allen's film, Max feels threatened when his favorite protege and mistress, a TV producer called "Bones" Burton (Ali MacGraw -- whose physique, expressive range and wardrobe would appear to make "Legs," "Frowns" or "Boots" more appropriate), falls in love with a young playwright, Steve Routlegde, who seems a kind of charmless Dick Cavett in the person of Peter Weller. Even after Bones and Steve marry, Max plots to break up the newlyweds by seducing Steve with a Hollywood contract and bankrupting Bones.
So far, so good. The fundamental modernism of the material emerges not so much in Allen's racy banter, Tony Walton's expensive furnishings or MacGraw's Calvin Klein duds as in the confused, cynical contortions of the plot. Contrary to expectations -- and defying the logic of the preparatory scenes as well -- Bones and Steve turn out to have no more integrity than their persecutor. Far from being alienated by Max's outrages, Bones is reconciled to them and even contemplates a Brighter Day as his copycat consort.
While none of the three principals is particularly likable, the story requires a different sort of preparation and tone if the filmmakers hope to justify the ugly irony of concluding that everybody's a sellout after all. It's not exactly kosher to recall the honest antagonism between Monty Woolley and Bette Davis in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and then decide what you really meant was George Sanders and Anne Baxter in "All About Eve." Moreover, there's something deeply offensive about the smug satisfaction the filmmakers seem to derive from their hypocritical validation of Max's guiding rule: "Show me the man who doesn't have his price, and I'll show you the man who's never had an offer." Max appears neither shrewd nor forgivable but stupidly vain and vindictive.
Lumet never does establish a confident comic tone, although he gets expert comic performances from several supporting players, notably Myrna Loy as Max's trusted secretary, Dina Merrill as his woozy wife, Sara Truslow as an eager-to-please new protege and Keenan Wynn and Tony Roberts as foxy business associates who make Max look a trifle slow-witted.
The new obligatory scene in Hollywood appears to be actresses beating up on actors. In "The Last Married Couple in America" Natalie Wood is provoked into pummeling George Segal while they're walking around Century City. The flashiest sequence in "Just Tell Me What You Want" obliges Ali MacGraw to assault Alan King inside Bergdorf Goodman's and then pursue him across 58th street for continued thrashing, to the applause of predominantly female onlookers.
Since MacGraw always has looked oddly intimidating, the scene is not without its authentic element of terror. Nevertheless, who is kidding whom? Given the drift of the material, Bones has no business whopping Max with her deadly purse, since she's destined to find fulfillment walking in his footsteps. But this slugfest obviously has guaranteed selling impact, and a preview is pulled out of context to whet the audience's appetite right at the start.
It's not a matter of merely getting even. Bones is proving that she can fight dirty and give no quarter. In effect she's presenting her qualifications for a Top Management Position. If it's any comfort, she seems to get the job.