High-concept romantic comedies tend to use their magic realism to make a point. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about how even failed relationships are worthwhile experiences. Groundhog Day is about learning to accommodate other people’s needs and desires. Warm Bodies is...about the same as Romeo and Juliet. I have no idea what 1987’s Mannequin is supposed to be about.
Mannequin ostensibly tells the story of Emmy (Kim Cattral), an ancient Egyptian princess (yep, still Kim Cattral) who wishes herself away from an arranged marriage only to end up in 1980s Philadelphia as a storefront mannequin. We’re told she sampled every other historical period in between, but finds ‘80s Philly the best. No wonder the city’s mayor loved the movie.
Emmy’s “true love” turns out to be Jonathan (a never-blander Andrew McCarthy), a losery stockboy at a giant, failing department store. But because Emmy is a mannequin, she’s got a sort of Toy Story situation in which she only comes to life when she and Jonathan are alone. After the obligatory “what the fuck” period, Jonathan starts going for regular, furtive rendezvous with Emmy, in which they play dressups, court, and end up in a whiz-bang window display by morning.
They also fall in love, because this is an alternate universe where painfully ordinary “nice guys” score reincarnated Egyptian princesses without even trying. It’s also a universe wherein window displays are the sole deciding factor in a store’s success, so Jonathan and Emmy’s creative tableaus get Jonathan a promotion. Emmy gets no credit, of course - not that she minds, because she’s really only here to help Jonathan, for some reason. "Some guys have all the luck," the tagline says. Yup.
There’s a lot going on here that falls apart very quickly. Why does Emmy wait thousands of years only to settle on Blandrew McCarthy? What does she want? Why does she flee an arranged marriage only to completely supplicate to the will of this pasty nincompoop? Why is she even a mannequin to begin with? Was this movie the result of two different screenplays forced together? If Emmy returns to mannequin form the moment anyone sees her, what happens to Jonathan’s penis when they get caught having sex?
Mannequin does offer a few pleasures: a young James Spader, upstaging everyone in sight; Police Academy’s G.W. Bailey in a night-watchman role almost entirely predicated upon his fame from that series; some great musical montages (Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" originated in this film); the insult “fartblossom.” But it’s also one of the most blatantly sexist romantic comedies I’ve ever seen, turning its female lead into a literal object for the advancement and satisfaction of the male. I haven’t even touched on the subplot wherein Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend is repeatedly and blatantly sexually harassed by her racist-caricature Italian boss before ultimately acquiescing.
But the real questions at Mannequin’s plaster core are ones of the heart. Romantic comedies are known for stretching the bounds of believability with their relationships - that’s a goodly part of what separates them from straight dramas. Mannequin, though, takes it too far, laying on not one but two high-concept ideas* and expecting us to go along with them. The goofy mannequin comedy takes centre stage to such a degree that there’s no room left for actual chemistry. Instead, Cattral and McCarthy fall for each other entirely thanks to plot physics, and we end up wondering where Jonathan’s dick goes.
* The sequel brought in reincarnated princes and wizards, and director Michael Gottlieb also went on to make A Kid In King Arthur's Court; clearly he had a thing for characters out of their time. But then, he also quit filmmaking to produce five Mortal Kombat games. I'm not gonna try to figure out his motivations.