Romantic comedy is a difficult genre to get right, and I think that’s because audiences are so painfully undemanding when it comes to what they’ll pay to see. As long as producers and writers and directors are rewarded for just maintaining the status quo and making the same thing over and over, there’s no reason for anyone to try any harder. In the case of “Crazy Stupid Love,” it is obvious that everyone involved is aware of the cliches they’re up against, and they seem determined to avoid the traps that are inherent to this kind of material. They are more successful than not, thanks in large part to a great cast, and overall, the film is an above-average example of how to do this.
Although next to no one saw “I Love You, Philip Morris,” the last film directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, but it was a smart, wicked, impressive take on the romantic comedy that pretty much exploded all the conventions of the genre, not least because the story dealt with two men as the central couple. The two of them worked together as a writing team first on the films “Cats & Dogs,” “Bad Santa,” and the remake of “The Bad News Bears.” Oddly, they did not write “Crazy Stupid Love,” which was instead written by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include “Cars,” “Bolt,” and “Tangled.” From that list of credits, I wouldn’t really imagine a film like “Crazy Stupid Love” to result from the collision between them all, but it seems like their sensibilities are a nice mesh, and the result is something that definitely has a very mainstream sensibility, but punctuated with some genuine observation, some honest insight into the way we all struggle towards what we think we want, and how we often lie to ourselves about what that is.
Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) have been married for long enough to have three children and a lifelong laundry list of common complaints, and one night, it boils over with Emily asking for a divorce out of the blue. She feels compelled to reveal that she slept with a co-worker, the casually smarmy David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), a revelation that destroys Cal. He moves out, staying close enough that he can check in on the family, specifically his 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who is just starting to grapple with the idea of love. At the same time, Hannah (Emma Stone) is preparing for the bar exam, while her friend Liz (Liza Lapira) pushes her to expand her dating horizons. In particular, there’s a guy named Jacob (Ryan Gosling) who hits on her one night at a bar, only to get shut down completely by Hannah. That same bar becomes a place of rebirth for Cal, who becomes a pet project for Jacob.
If you want a real snapshot of how far Steve Carell has come as a performer in just six year, check out his work in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and his work here, where both films deal with someone being coached on how to date. There’s a vulnerability that has always been part of his onscreen appeal, even when he was on “The Daily Show,” and what he’s gotten better at doing over time is getting past the funny to something very raw. He plays long-suffering very, very well, and he also brings a decency to the role that balances some of the more questionable choices Cal makes in the film. There are not many leading men right now who could play the particular mix of things that Carell pulls off here, and if the film works for you, it’s built on the foundation of his performance as the anchor for everything else.
The other performance that really pops here is Emma Stone, whose work in “Easy A” served as a sort of announcement of just how strong a performer she is, and here, she’s the girl who turns Jacob around. It’s a supporting role, but she’s also the thing that sort of ties the whole film together. The best scene in the film is an unusually long extended set piece that starts on the night she passes her bar exam, when she expects her boyfriend Richard (Josh Groban) to propose to her. When he doesn’t, it leads her to react strongly, walking out on him and straight into the arms of Jacob for what she is determined will be a one-night stand. The night that follows unfolds slowly, naturally, a very clear-eyed representation of that sort of first night that defines a relationship. I’ve had that night a few times in my life, and while, yes, this is the Hollywood mainstream comedy version of it, they still get it right. It’s easy to see why this moment changes Jacob, and this is a great example of showing something happen instead of just telling the audience. We see Hannah’s expectations of Jacob shift even as his understanding of himself changes.
Analeigh Tipton is, according to her IMDb page, a graduate of “America’s Next Top Model,” something I would not have guessed based on her work in the film. She plays Jessica, the babysitter for Cal and Emily who is also the focal point of Robbie’s burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. He’s got a wicked crush on her, unaware that she carries a torch for Cal, who she sees as the perfect suburban dad. Tipton and Bobo are both very natural performers, and while their storyline builds to the film’s biggest embrace of a rom-com stereotype, they both shine. Supporting turns are strong across the board from Beth Littleford, John Carroll Lynch, Kevin Bacon, the incredibly adorable Liza Lapira, and especially Marisa Tomei, who seems to have discovered some magic serum which makes her hotter each year after 40.
Carell and Gosling play much of the film head-to-head, and Gosling seems to be playing to his strengths. He knows how Hollywood would like to sell him. Everyone knows “The Notebook.” Everyone knows how much that affected audiences. And everyone in town would happily cast both Gosling and his “Notebook” co-star Rachel McAdams in nothing but romantic leads for the next twenty years if given the opportunity, which is why it seems like both Gosling and McAdams have run from that. Here, Gosling plays a cancerous version of the guy that Hollywood would like him to play, and it’s only gradually that he reveals something else. Because Stone’s so good at what she does, it feels like a real change happening in Gosling and not just something the script requires.
The one underwritten role in the film is Julianne Moore’s Emily, and the reasons for her dissatisfaction with Carell are never made clear enough to justify the beginning of the film. Likewise, things are awfully easy for her by the end of the film, and she seems to be the only one with any real power in the relationship with her husband. He accepts blame he doesn’t deserve in order to “earn” her back, and it seems like there’s nothing learned by her at all. She’s rewarded for throwing away her marriage, and one of the only reasons it didn’t bother me is because I understand Carell wanting something that’s not necessarily the best thing for him, determined to take some bruises in order to get back to home. There are some inevitable collapses into convention, and the ending is nowhere near as strong as the best of the rest of the film, but overall, tech credits are strong and this plays as a strong version of what has made a lot of money for Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis in recent years. This film’s success will make up for the unfortunate commercial stillbirth of Ficarra and Requa’s last film, and I’m curious to see where they go from here, and if they ever decide to play as rough as their very funny “Bad Santa” script again.
“Crazy, Stupid, Love” opens in theaters Friday July 29, 2011.