In the first scene of Crazy, Stupid, Love, Emily (Julianne Moore) tells Cal (Steve Carell), her high school sweetheart and husband of 20-plus years, that she wants a divorce. She goes on to mention that she had an affair with a co-worker named Dave Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), at which point Cal tells her that he’s heard enough. (He’s not kidding: By the time Cal makes it to the bar that night, the name “Dave Lindhagen” will have become a kind of negative mantra for him.) But Emily can’t stop talking. “I think I’m having a midlife crisis,” she confesses a couple of scenes later, when the now-estranged couple meet again. “Can women even have midlife crises? In the movies, it’s always men.”
And in this movie, too. Would that an actress of Julianne Moore’s age and talent got a chance to explore an identity crisis in a real way in a venue other than Showtime, but whatever Emily may be going through, it’s swiftly pushed to the background. Following Friends With Benefits as the second romantic comedy in as many weeks to ostentatiously point up its awareness of romantic-comedy cliché several times over the course of a narrative that ultimately validates far more of those clichés than it deflates, here Crazy, Stupid, Love makes the mistake of suggesting a path untrod by films of its genre, only to deliver a scramble of the romantic-comedic familiar. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa were last seen as the auteurs of I Love You Phillip Morris, one of the smartest comedies of recent years and quite possibly the best gay relationship film ever made featuring Hollywood stars. Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t nearly as groundbreaking, but its love-positive dramedy is notably bighearted, and enlivened by the work of a few good actors.
So Moore recedes, popping up mostly as a foil to Cal’s effort to Regain His Manhood via new clothes and anonymous sex. He takes tutoring in both fields from Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a hard-bodied, harder-hearted player who is moved to Change His Ways when he falls for Hannah (Emma Stone), a stunning lady neurotic/law student whose Focus on Career has left her in lack of a satisfying romantic life. In a less successfully integrated story thread, Cal’s 13-year-old son nurses an obsessive crush on his 17-year-old babysitter, who in turn only has eyes for 40-something Cal—a roundelay whose bawdy sentimentality feels airlifted from a John Hughes movie.
Carell and Gosling, each willing to take his character to the point of caricature in order to find the truth in him, have a nicely barbed chemistry together, never more convincing than in the scene, indicative of Crazy‘s treatment of cinematic tropes, in which they establish their pupil-mentor relationship. Strangers negotiating in a bar, they use gangster-film lingo (“Maybe you remind me of somebody,” “You in or you out?”) to cement a bond whose first destination is necessarily a shopping montage.
Carell’s film choices as far back as The 40 Year-Old Virgin suggest a tendency toward middle-aged, every-nerd romantic leads—the unlikely love interest who spends an entire film proving his charms—but here he’s given a realistically complicated person to play. As Gosling’s character puts it, Cal has “kind eyes and a good head of hair,” both of which go a long way toward boosting the credibility of a character who bounces between oblivious dad, hopeless romantic, and calculating lothario. In contrast to Carell’s contrived “transformation” into romantic hero, Gosling is treated like an ingenue, with the directors building an entire scene around the awesome spectacle of his rock-hard midsection, giving his ass and hulking muscles their own key light in a sex scene in which his partner is mostly in shadow.
Dan Fogelman’s script is snappy, if too proudly referential (it’s hard to say if a motif involving the use of Dirty Dancing as a seduction tool was outright stolen from last year’s French rom-com Heartbreaker, or if the similarity is mere coincidence). The film is more interesting at its least cute; in its second half, the dialogue seems looser, less bound to punchline. Characters who previously talked over one another, too deep in their own heads to actually have an exchange, slow down and start to listen. Shooting on grainy, high-speed film stock with an often handheld camera, working with a suite of actors who are game to both play light and silly and dig deep, Ficarra and Requa lend a naturalism to highly contrived, patently absurd situations.
Spoiler alert: There are two plot twists, neither of which seem particularly necessary, but I have to admit that I saw neither coming. That’s the thing about movie clichés—as eager as filmmakers seem to be to show that they know the jig is up, sometimes that shit just works.