There aren’t many films about phone sex that are worth anyone’s time—notable exceptions being the excellent short film Sumi, the brief, funny phone sex segments of Tamra Davis’s 90’s hip hop spoof CB4, and about three-fourths of Spike Lee’s kind-of classic Girl 6. Despite its truly troublesome flaws, I have a soft spot for Girl 6, as it gets at least some things about the industry very right, which is more than most films do. The 2012 phone sex buddy comedy For A Good Time Call fits comfortably alongside Girl 6 as another genuinely mixed bag. Its focus is really more on friendship than phone sex, but it does manage to maintain a phone sex-centric narrative throughout a feature film’s runtime without making me want to throw my TV out my window.
For A Good Time Call, directed by Jamie Travis, is now available on Netflix and other streaming services. I’m relieved to report that it is a pleasant-enough way to spend 90 minutes, and one of the better cinematic portrayals of my profession; not hateful, judgmental, or a patronizing cautionary tale. But I’m exasperated that this baseline decency gives it such an advantage over much of the cannon.
FAGTC tells the story of straight-laced Lauren (Lauren Miller), who through a series of contrivances is forced to become roommates with bubbly, performatively slutty Katie (Ari Graynor). The two initially hate each other and it’s all very Odd Couple (they have history—in college, party girl Katie peed in Lauren’s car after getting wasted), but become bffs through the magic of starting their own phone sex line. One of the screenwriters, Katie Ann Naylon, has said on record that she operated her own phone sex line herself in college.
Bonding through working a phone sex line is actually a great premise for a fun, bubbly film, and it’s the crux of what I simultaneously love and find frustrating about this one. While the relationship between the women is both believable and refreshing, their business model is much less so.
Lauren discovers that Katie is a phone sex operator and confronts her during a call after overhearing the conversation and being confused. Now, I can understand why Katie would want to keep her phone sex gig a secret from judgmental Lauren. But it’s hard for me to suspend disbelief far enough to believe Katie would bring Lauren in as a roommate, into her workplace, without giving some kind of heads up or a cover story to prevent exactly this sort of hassle. I did phone sex out of an apartment with multiple roommates for years, and you’d better believe I told people while interviewing them and gauged their reactions. I couldn’t live with anyone who would mess with my income stream. I find it hard to believe that Katie would both not mention it and be so goddamn loud without at least taking the precaution of setting up a cheap white noise generator.
Then again, good girl Lauren, who slowly gets dragged into the weird, dirty world of phone sex, is supposed to be the audience surrogate, so making Katie’s psychology and behavior equally plausible may not have been a priority. She’s the weird one, so she’s weird! I don’t think the writers were thinking about the reactions of PSOs or anyone else who might relate more to Katie in the audience, despite the fact that the character is based on one of the writers.
After her initial shock and judgement, Lauren proposes that Katie could be making more money if most of the profits from her calls weren’t going to the dispatch service for which she works. Katie explains that getting a 900 number seems too hard. Luckily, grown-up Lauren is here to show her she’s wrong—at least, if she has Lauren’s help.
The idea that Katie could easily poach all her regulars with no consequences and instantly have a thriving business with apparently no advertising, no chat trolling, and no website, is a bit insulting to everyone’s intelligence, as is the idea that just acquiring a 900 number is the main barrier between making okay money working for a successful service and great money running your own. I’ve been working for dispatch services on and off for 15 years, during which I’ve perpetually conducted an ongoing debate with myself about setting up my own service. Stressing over getting a 900 number isn’t what’s held me back, it’s the time, labor and capital required to effectively publicize and operate that number. Not to mention that you can’t start your own line, expect it to generate profits, and maintain the scheduling flexibility that attracts me to this work in the first place.
What’s also odd is the way Katie trains Lauren once the latter decides to dip her toe into the PSO pool rather than just running the business. “Whatever he says, I say I want to lick it,” advises Katie. That’s kind of funny line, but it’s useless phone sex advice. Most callers don’t open by talking about their own anatomy, and of those that do, 99% of the time “it” is a plain old hard on. Few callers open by discussing their assholes, for example, and those that do almost definitely don’t want me to lick them. Adopting such a practice would probably lose me at least half my callers, and confuse another fourth. Submissive men who feel unable to explore their desires elsewhere are one of the key markets allowing phone sex to survive in this day and age, and one usually doesn’t want the dominatrix doing the licking. On the other side, a caller who wants a call about receiving a rim job isn’t going to start talking about his ass with no context.
Weirder still, Katie further trains Lauren by breaking out a treasure trove of sex toys (pro tip: you really, really don’t need sex toys to do phone sex) and pointing to random combinations of dirty words on a board for Lauren to read aloud. It would make more sense to help her understand a range of fetishes and teach her some erotic terminology rather than playing dirty Mad Libs, hilarious as they must have been to some focus group. Yes, you need to be comfortable saying “pussy” to a stranger if you’re going to be good at this, but it’s more important to be able to fluff egos, paint vivid pictures, tell stories, improvise, empathize, and tease out information from often tight-lipped callers who may be terrible at articulating their own desires.
Katie and Lauren dub their hotline 1-900-MMM-HMMM, a name the film finds a lot more hilarious than I do, what with all the waaaaaay more over the top phone numbers that exist in real life. MMM-HMMM seems to be a fairly vanilla outing, and I find it extremely hard to believe that they’d have such a thriving business with such a narrow focus, especially todayin this day and age. At one point they hire another operator named Krissy (Sugar Lyn Beard, who has quite a name and voice and could probably make real money as a PSO with the latter) who brags about her ability to sound young. Krissy is shut down by Katie and Lauren, who claim to “stay away from the pedo thing.” Good for them and their boundaries, but phone sex is a business that has survived to the small degree it has in large part because it’s a place where callers can discuss such taboo topics.
In the film, though, there’s no conversational content that might disturb the audience—it’s all very basic vanilla sucking-and-fucking. I was disappointed that the screenplay so completely glosses over the more potentially troubling aspects of the industry. Labor is a non-issue for the characters—they’re the bosses and are instantly successful! A part of me appreciated this happy portrayal free of dirty laundry. But, ultimately, this simplistic positivity highlighted the fact that this film doesn’t really represent people working in the industry today at all, despite having a former PSO behind the scenes. In some respects, Girl 6 was actually more realistic.
Then again, this film is less about the realities of professional phone sex than it is about friendship between women, as writer Katie Anne Naylon has explicitly stated. The phone sex business provides a colorful milieu and semi-racy comedic fodder, but beyond a few insightful lines, FAGTC isn’t so interested in what’s going on in the PSO world on either the micro level of a given conversation, or the macro level of the broader economy, sex work, sexual fantasy, gender politics, or the intersections between these things. 1-900-MMM-HMMM is just a wacky, random gig these two broads happen to fall into. While being less offensive than many more serious-minded takes on the phone sex industry, FAGTC isn’t particularly illuminating, either.
One notable exception to this lack of inside-baseball insight is a segment in which Seth Rogan cameos as an airplane pilot calling from his plane. He suddenly gets extremely turned off when Lauren says a classic, clichéd “sexy” bit of nonsense: that she isn’t wearing any underwear. “That’s disgusting!” he barks, out of nowhere, and I cackled with recognition at how the most seemingly benign and basic detail can end a good run. I would have appreciated more such insider understanding. It’s sadly in short supply.
I had a few other miscellaneous qualms with film, like the pejorative use of the word “whore”—at one point Lauren says that phone sex “doesn’t make me a whore,” a sentiment I wish the movie hadn’t tacitly endorsed. And I was left scratching my head at the fact that Lauren and Katie appear themselves in the TV ad they make for their hotline: the women you see on phone sex TV ads are not the ones really answering the phones! Finally, Katie goes on an IRL date with a caller for whom she has developed feelings, and Lauren completely supports this. What. Sigh. Thanks for the garbage message you just sent my callers. Yes, there are some PSOs who for various reasons decide to meet up with callers, but it’s rare. It’s rarer still for us to date one. It is weird and disappointing to cram a caller-date fantasy into a female buddy movie about professional phone sex.
FAGTC is a pretty good time. Graynor and Miller have genuine chemistry, and their journey from mutual disdain through platonic romance is believable and gratifying. The film paints a lovely portrait of female friendship, but my positive feelings about its portrayal of phone sex speak more to how low the bar has been set than any insight it displays. That said, I am sure I’ll watch it again in the future and grapple with the mix of refreshment and annoyance, familiarity and head-shaking wrongness I experienced the first time yet again.
“You’re not better than phone sex!” Katie tells Lauren at one point, and I almost cheered. I’d be so much more on board if only the film had taken note of this point and at least semi-realistically portrayed the job rather than sanitizing it to make it palatable to for audiences looking for that easy good time.