Why Mannequin Is the Best Movie Ever Made About Philadelphia

It's not great. It's not even good. But what the film says about the city is important.

Mannequin is not a good movie.

You really only need to know the film’s plot to figure that out: A down-on-his-luck Philadelphian gets a job in a department store and falls in love with a mannequin that comes to life.

Even then, not much is done with that silly plot. “Mannequin is dead,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1987 review. “The wake lasts 1 1/2 hours, and then we can leave the theater. Halfway through, I was ready for someone to lead us in reciting the rosary.” The Washington Post was blunt: “Mannequin is a movie made by, for and about dummies.” (The PG-rated film “includes some sexual innuendoes and some undraped mannequins,” the New York Times helpfully informs parents.)

And so Mannequin, released in 1987 and filmed primarily in Wanamaker’s at 13th and Market, will never be considered one of the great movies of Philadelphia. It’s not an Oscar-winner like Philadelphia, a critical darling like Blow Out, a hilarious Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd comedy like Trading Places or a classic beloved around the world like Rocky. (Incidentally, Mannequin defeated Stallone’s Over the Top at the box office.)

That’s kind of a shame. Yes, it’s a terrible film, but the message of Mannequin is by far the greatest tribute to Philadelphia ever committed to celluloid.

To fully explain the greatness of this film, though, I’ll have to take you through the plot a little. I know, I know. Stay with me.

We open in, um, Ancient Egypt? “Edfu, Egypt,” an on-screen title tells us. “A really long time ago. Right before lunch.” The movie jumps right in: Emmy (Kim Cattrall) is dressed a mummy, hiding in a pyramid, trying to get out of her arranged marriage to a camel dung salesman. (Are you laughing yet?) She prays to “the gods” to save her from this arranged marriage, the lights flicker and she vanishes.

If you’re wondering if this was a 1980s comedy, we then move into an animated title sequence, which I guess shows Emmy traveling through time (as a cat).

Then, Philadelphia!

We meet sculptor Jonathan Switcher, played by Andrew McCarthy, who’s actually singing the Temptations’ “My Girl” to a mannequin he’s making the first time we meet him. It’s the first of many uncomfortable scenes in the movie that makes his character seem like he has serious sexual hangups.

Jonathan tells his boss he spent a week creating this perfect mannequin, and his boss tells him he’s supposed to be making 3 or 4 mannequins a day. He’s fired in the comical way that only happens in the movies or on The Apprentice, with an easily caricatured buffoon screaming “You’re fired!”

Then, it happens again. And again and again. Yes, in order to make sure we get the point, Jonathan is fired three more times: from a job making balloon animals, a landscaping job and a gig at a pizza parlor. If you’re wondering if these scenes may have been inserted to help pad the painfully-thin movie’s running time to 90 minutes, well, I was too.

After his girlfriend turns him down for sex — in an awesome way, actually, as she tells him to get a therapist (or, failing that, a TV psychic) she immediately jets into a cab, leaving him unable to whine to her about not getting any — he walks past the Prince & Co. department store. His mannequin is in the window. He heads the next morning to the store, a fictionalized Wanamaker’s. He gets a job there after saving the owner (Estelle Getty) from being killed by a falling sign.

And, yes, one night while setting up a window display the mannequin comes to life. And here’s where the movie gets unrealistic.

I can accept that a woman who prayed to the gods to leave ancient Egypt (she says she was born in 2514 B.C.) would somehow be reincarnated as a mannequin thousands of years later. I can believe that the first act by a mannequin brought to life would be to create the perfect window display. I can even live with this film’s never-explained shtick that the mannequin only comes to life when Jonathan and Emmy are alone. I will even ignore that whiny, unlikable Jonathan says this to Emmy: “Easy for you to say. As a mannequin, you’ll always have work.”

But what I can’t believe is that the people of 1980s Philadelphia would be enthralled by a window display.

This is how Jonathan makes it big. Really. His one good window display is enough to draw huge crowds and stave off the sale of Prince & Co. to modern, neon-clad department store Illustra (actually a Boscov’s in Camp Hill). “Maybe people will come to see our new bold window displays,” the store’s owner actually says.

And there’s an extended dance sequence in the Wanamaker building, oh yes.

The movie moves along as you’d expect: Prince & Co. is doing record sales thanks to the window displays he creates with Emmy when she comes to life. The evil Illustra executives (including Jonathan’s now ex-girlfriend, who lives in the Dorchester) kidnap the mannequin, planning to put it on display in his store. When Jonathan gets wind of the plot, his ex throws her into an incinerator that appears to be for a mannequin disposal company. Jonathan saves her from the incinerator and Emmy has been turned into a full-time real woman. The police show up to arrest James Spader, whose good name I have protected to this point by not mentioning he plays a villain in the film. Jonathan and Emmy are married in a store window as Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” plays.

Sounds like a paint-by-numbers comedy, a bad sketch stretched out to movie length that made $42.7 million. The actors play roles but not caricatures. So why is this film the most important about Philadelphia?

The film never explains how or why Emmy is saved from her arranged marriage. It never explains why she suddenly stops being a mannequin after Jonathan saves her life. It certainly never jumps through any sci-fi hoops to figure out how she got here. But it does establish a few rules.

In one scene, Emmy says Jonathan is a lot like her “old boyfriend, Chris.” When he presses her, she continues: “I told him that the world was round and I never saw him again.” (“Christopher Columbus? You knew him?” Jonathan adds, padding out the run time and hammering the joke into the brains of the two people in the theater who didn’t get it.) Emmy’s been jumping through time somehow, dating different men, trying to figure out which one was best for her.

Later, the two are having a discussion about their future. Jonathan says he’s confident he wants to be with Emmy forever, even though she’s a mannequin, and jokes about naming their first-born Pinocchio. Then he asks her, “How do you know you’re not missing something better 5,000 years later?”

Emmy replies, “Nothing could ever be better than being here with you.”

Do you get it now? The message of Mannequin, clumsy as it is, is that the greatest place and time in recorded history is 1980s Philadelphia.

This woman dated Christopher Columbus and Michaelangelo and the best time in her life was living in the Wanamaker building. Truly, this is the most uplifting film ever made about the city.

And, honestly, it’s kind of great that it’s a crappy film. Our little secret.

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