Frustratingly uneven and at times embarrassingly bad, Crazy, Stupid, Love. is a prime example of how several strong scenes and performances do not a good movie make.
Steve Carell gives his best performance since Little Miss Sunshine. Ryan Gosling displays who’d-have-thunk-it wisenheimer skills and Emma Stone blossoms further into a big star … for what? Schvantz jokes, radically implausible plot twists and a chintzy narrative that plays like a slamming-door farce spin on American Beauty?
For all its many problems, I Love You, Phillip Morris — the previous film from directorial team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa — offered a more honest, convincing portrayal of how love elevates us while exploiting our human foibles. Perhaps the duo, who also wrote Morris, misplaced trust in writer Dan Fogelman — the scribe of two Cars movies making his first foray into live action since, uh, well, Fred Claus. Fogelman certainly believes his stories are dovetailing. They feel like they’re in a tailspin. Contrived comedy trumps almost every affecting character moment that this cast works hard, and impressively, to produce.
Take Carell’s Cal, a middle-aged schlub who has let early mistakes errantly guide him into a life of caution and cluelessness and comes out broken because of it. Carell lifts Crazy on his back during four terrific monologues — defenses-down soliloquies in which Cal shoots tearfully straight about heartache. The rest of Fogelman’s script flat out refuses to let his relatable warmth, and flaws, carry this film anywhere unique.
The film opens on Cal and his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore) at dinner. Instead of dessert, she orders a divorce. Unable to let Cal’s shell-shocked silence stand, Emily cops to infidelity with a co-worker named David Lindhagen. (Get used to that name. You’ll hear it 300 times before Kevin Bacon shows up to play him.) Disclosing the news right away, Cal doesn’t pussyfoot around with their 13-year-old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), or their 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton). To Jessica, who harbors an unknown crush on Cal, this is like Cupid drawing back his bow. To Robbie, who confuses confessed masturbatory fantasies about Jessica with a romantic gesture, it’s a challenge to take one back for love. It’s a good setup — suggesting perhaps a more sobering version of Love, Actually with fewer grand gestures — until subsequent scenes set the deafest tone possible.
When Cal’s co-workers hear him crying and think it’s cancer, they’re overjoyed to learn it’s divorce … to the point at which they clap for him. You could argue that similarly exaggerated emasculation occurred in Jerry Maguire. There, however, it truly reflected the teetering confidence of its title character, not just a screenwriter’s “funny” scenario. Then Cal’s buddy Bernie (John Carroll Lynch) “breaks up” with him at a bar and offers a gift of cologne. You get the picture: This picture doesn’t get it.
It’s at that swanky bar where Cal’s vocal misery draws the ear of Jacob (Gosling) — a trust-fund lothario whose sole skill seems to be panty-dropping. Jacob extends an offer to help Cal “reclaim his manhood” (i.e., get laid), refine his Kohl’s-and-Gap style and become the Miyagi to his Daniel-san in the ways of shithead seduction. Cal still pines for Emily, but embarks on amorous, hollow exploits (including one with Marisa Tomei doing an extremely shrill kewpie-doll routine).
Despite hitting the same note several times, it’s nice to see Gosling cut loose with such brio and play a character who truly believes his is the path to betterment. That is until he’s transfixed by a woman on whom he thought his charms had no effect and he drops his guard. Hannah (Stone) is a freshly minted lawyer in a milquetoast, go-nowhere relationship who decides to indulge her impulsive interest in a one-night stand. In this scene, Stone and Gosling ignite with immediate intimacy. And the tics and timing of Stone’s awkward, gin-soaked sexual aggression (which gets an unexpected cold shower) persuades us in a snap that Jacob would go gaga for her.
Give Warner Brothers credit for not spoiling where the story goes from there. Bogus as it feels, the preview audience ate up one critical development — even as it played out among the sort of ridiculous, deadening slapstick usually reserved for Madea films. They also sniffled audibly at its grand finale, and not entirely without merit. Carell at least truly earns the watering eyes.
The rest of Crazy, Stupid, Love. might make you rub your eyes, too. It can be that irritating.