Crazy, Stupid, Love.

August 4, 2011

If given the choice between seeing a mediocre action film and a mediocre romantic comedy, nine times out of ten I’ll pick the latter.  Both can be terrible, but while the former will probably be a boring dirge through mindlessness, the rom-com has the ability to transcend the rigid demands of the genre through occasional subversion of societal expectations, a few witty scenes, and perhaps most commonly, some good performances that can truly elevate the middling material.  After all, these films are mostly about dialogue and character interaction, and the general simplicity of the filmmaking (no elaborate special effects sequences, less time devoted to making something ‘awesome’) allows for the actors to find rhythms and beats that give a scene much more punch than it should have.  This is not to say that a majority of Hollywood rom-coms aren’t absolutely dreadful – they are – but there’s more of a chance there will be something to make the time spent watching them not totally intolerable. 

Crazy, Stupid, Love., directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is rife with problems, pretty much all of which stem from Dan Fogelman’s script.  It juggles six characters in three inter-connecting stories.  Steve Carrell is Cal, who has just been told by his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) that she has been cheating on him and wants a divorce.  Meanwhile, their son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), is in love with his babysister, Jessica (Ashleigh Tipton), who happens to have a wicked crush on Cal.  Then there’s Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a charming lothario at the posh local bar Cal runs to when things go south, who is intrigued by stand-offish redhead Hannah (Emma Stone), herself in the midst of a bad relationship and a bar exam.  While not quite an omnibus film a la Love, Actually or Valentine’s Day, it still smacks of a series of undercooked story ideas thrown together rather than a single idea fleshed out to a full feature.  The central plot is Cal’s, as his son’s issues with Jessica often circle back to him, and most of Jacob’s screentime is devoted to coaching his newly single lifestyle.  Because of this, Julianne Moore only gets a few scenes here and there, and Emma Stone is almost completely absent for a long while.  It gives the film a certain unevenness that it can’t quite escape.  By the end you feel that the much more interesting Stone/Gosling storyline has been given such short shrift that you struggle to place it in the film at all.  It plays more like a loose collection of scenes, where themes and motivations are abandoned once the point or joke has been made solely to move things forward.  It doesn’t help matters that the climax involves a graduation and a very public speech that clearly defines the lessons learned by everyone involved.

Still, if you’re going to have a loose collection of scenes, they might as well be as good as some of these.  The Stone/Gosling plot might be undercooked, but they make their one extended scene together count.  Forgive the occasional meta-narrative comments about a PG-13 v an R movie (and the somewhat cutesy gender reversal that follows) and you have a fantastic pseudo-seduction between the charmingly nervous Stone and the charismatically not-so-guarded-anymore Gosling, breathing life into what would otherwise be a dull, been-there-done-that blossoming romance.  And although we’re given no understanding of why the Cal and Emily marriage is worth saving by the screenplay, there’s a fantastic exchange outside a teacher’s office where Carrell and Moore raise the dialogue far beyond what it deserves, giving us a good sense of their rapport and the light, easy-going humour with which they regard each when they’re not divorcing.  Even Robbie isn’t as grating as he probably should be, because he’s never presented as wise-beyond-his-years; just dogmatically attached to the notion of soulmates because he has to justify his severe crush.

There are laughs in the ladies man sequence, mostly down to Carrell’s well-known awkward reactions and, surprisingly, Gosling’s comic chops.  He wisely plays Jacob as a slightly unaware charmer.  He plays the humour without really trying, which is crucial for a role like this, as well as allowing us to root for him when he finally – inevitably – falls in love.  I also liked the bar itself, which is posh but sterile in a forced, try-hard middle class sort of way.  It seems to be located in the suburbs, but we never see the outside or its spatial relation to the somewhat bland sets that make up everyone’s homes.  There’s no real reason that so many glamorous, gorgeous women should be frequenting this joint, but if imagined as a place outside of physical reality, it makes perfect sense.  This is where dreams and nightmares exist side by side.

I’d also like to give credit to Ficarra and Requa for the big scene later in the film, where everything comes together in surprising ways.  In retrospect, it is creaky (and something of a cheat), but as it happens it pulls genuine farce out of what should have been groanworthy genre trappings.  Again, there was a lot of effort into pulling the film out of the screenplay, and they’ve made a lot of it look effortless to boot.

There’s never any doubt how the film will resolve.  Crazy, Stupid, Love flirts with the kind of quirky, sensitive mainstream indie that both Carrell and Gosling (Dan in Real Life and Lars and the Real Girl, respectively, and among others) have featured in before, though it never really has the conviction to follow through in that direction.  In many ways, it is a mess of a film, always pushing back against the script to be something better than it is.  In this genre, however, the performances can be enough to make the film enjoyable, and in this instance, they more than do the trick.  I would have liked for it to have been better, but in today’s crop of rom-coms, I’m more than happy to take what I can get.


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