Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Outstanding cast turns every cliche in romantic comedies upside down
“Crazy, Stupid, Love.’’ has two commas and a period. Can that sentence be diagrammed? What are these words modifying? Is “love’’ a noun or a verb? Is the amount of punctuation in a movie title proportional to the pleasure to be found in the movie itself? The answers are: “I don’t know,’’ “I don’t know,’’ “I can’t tell,’’ and “evidently.’’ Dan Fogelman wrote this romantic comedy, which John Requa and Glenn Ficarra directed, and they all appear to have a much firmer grip on genre than on punctuation (Requa and Ficarra actually left a comma off their previous movie, “I Love You Philip Morris,’’ in which Jim Carrey played a gay con man.)
The new film is set in Los Angeles and is poised between the classical Hollywood screwball comedy and pretty good network-television situation comedy. This could be the season speaking, but it feels in many ways like a romantic blockbuster. That period and two commas could easily be exclamation points since just about everything in this movie is absurdly overstated. When Emily Weaver (Julianne Moore) tells her dumpy husband, Cal (Steve Carell), that she wants a divorce and has had an affair, he casually hurtles from a door of the car she’s driving. The Weavers’ 13-year-old-son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), tells his Olive Oyl-ly, 17-year-old baby sitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) that he loves her, even after she’s caught him, well, thinking about her beneath his sheets. She, of course, is working up the courage to tell Cal she loves him. He doesn’t notice her. He can’t stop thinking about the man who slept with his wife. Requa and Ficarra encourage grand statements and enormous reactions. They want pyrotechnic feeling, and their shamelessness works. It has no pretensions of depth, just more feeling.
A stone-and-chrome yuppie bar provides the frequent meeting place for half the characters. It’s the Regal Beagle. It’s Cheers. It’s Central Perk. It’s the bridge on the USS Enterprise. That bar also provides the germ of the movie’s steadily mounting farce. It’s where Cal meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a dapper slut who, out of boredom or the need for a broment, takes Cal shopping for designer clothes that no longer make him look like a homeless math teacher.
This is the rare movie that dares to take Carell’s handsomeness seriously, to acknowledge that he’s handsome at all. Even then, he’s not as effortlessly cool as Gosling, who speaks more here than he has in his last five movies combined. The filmmakers have fun constructing scenes of him rolling his eyes at Carell as Jacob tries to teach Cal how to seduce a woman. Gosling has an innate remoteness that can be easily construed as aloof. Really, it’s just matinee-idol mystery, and rather than unpack it, the movie recalibrates it. In at least one breezy montage, Jacob plies a dozen women with his signature line: “Let’s get out of here.’’ He delivers it with obvious carnality and just enough gentleness and sincerity that by about the seventh time, I started to get out of my seat and follow him home.
Gosling is the most naturally sexual young actor the movies have. Requa and Ficarra mix him up in a lot of tired gags, like having him spread his legs while talking, naked, to Carell in a gym locker room then having Carell pass out into his bare crotch in a sauna. Gosling’s charisma seems to thrive on the attention.
The luckiest lady he meets is a lawyer played by Emma Stone, who shows up at the bar with a girlfriend (Liza Lapira). And even before Gosling slinks over to promote himself, you hope he’ll go for the quick-witted Lapira, who deserves a movie of her own. But after an hour of narrative oscillation, the film rests on a wonderful couple of scenes between Gosling and Stone, in which her cup of quirkiness runneth over and he wins from her what every movie should: that big, raspy laugh.
These two have a long talk in his stone-and-chrome house - apparently, there’s one architect in LA - during which you watch two people fall in love. What’s great about Gosling has nothing to do with what’s great about Stone, but the incongruity doesn’t sink the movie. She complicates his virility with enough nerdiness to suit her piquant vestal air. He gets her to laugh. She gets him to snort.
Even in that casting, this is a movie that knows what we’re thinking. How could a comedy about a club-dwelling player not culminate in misogyny? But there’s no hate in Gosling here. You know why every woman who leaves with him does so. Marisa Tomei swoops in and steals two scenes as a woman with an honesty fetish, and that feels new, too. Her second scene ends in embarrassment for Cal, who watches, dejected, as her character along with Emily and a handful of onlookers walk away and it starts to rain. I reached for my notebook, but before I could start scribbling, Cal finished my thought: “What a cliché.’’ The movie embraces and tries to upend them.
It would have been easy, for instance, to make Emily some kind of brittle emasculator, the way, say, Annette Bening was in “American Beauty,’’ to name only a virtuosic example. But the character really is searching for something or someone that makes her happy, and it’s not her husband. It might not even be the co-worker she slept with, even though he’s played by a Visine-clear Kevin Bacon, who’s so not creepy here that it creeped me out. Moore knows her range as a comedian, and this movie gives her plenty to do simply with reaction shots and throwaway lines.
Fogelman has written scripts for animated movies (“Tangled’’) and live-action cartoons (“Fred Claus’’), and there’s a simple, almost juvenile quality to this film, in addition to its characters’ relentless agelessness, which is pivotal to a rambunctious, cleverly turned plot twist. The fun is in watching these robustly generic people trip over and pinball off of each other, seeing them eddy around Carell, who as the straight man here is getting dangerously close to Greg Kinnear’s territory - where comedy is too self-serious to laugh at. He’d do well to tread in the other direction. Still, amid the bright, broad cartoonishness, Fogelman, Requa, and Ficarra are trying out a good idea about the cons and pros of human connection: that along with outrageous misunderstanding comes the possibility for maturity, that maybe all this talking will turn flailing grown-ups into full-blown adults.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.