By Drew Taylor | The Playlist July 27, 2011 at 5:39AM
Precariously mixing elements of broad comedy, bittersweet heartache, charming romance and soulful, surprisingly mature dramatic moments, "Crazy, Stupid, Love" is an endearing and winning summer comedic drama. It succeeds in spite of some messy plotting, dicey adulteration of tones, and too convenient and ridiculous sequences that threaten to unravel a well-made, mostly well-written picture about love and marital discord.
And while at times cloying and disordered, there's something incredibly misleading about the trailers and television spots that have run in anticipation of "Crazy, Stupid, Love." Potentially as a way of trying to keep up with the unending stream of bawdy R-rated comedies that were released this summer, the promos emphasize the film's goofier, more outlandish aspects, while downplaying anything else. Watching the entire picture, though, you'll be taken aback by just how heartfelt, identifiable, relatively intelligent, dimensional, and hilarious it often is.
As the movie opens, Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) and his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) are out to dinner. While trying to decide on the dessert they both want, she drops a bombshell: she wants a divorce. While driving home she lets out another stinger: she has slept with her coworker David Lindhagen (played later by Kevin Bacon), which prompts Cal to try and flee the moving vehicle. Once they get back to the home they share, he accidentally announces the divorce to his children's babysitter Jessica (a good turn by model-turned actress Analeigh Tipton) and their 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), moments after Robbie has confessed his undying love for Jessica.
Forced to rejoin the dating community for the first time in decades, Cal starts hanging out at one of those ultra-chic cocktail bars that only single people frequent (cue lots of Thievery Corporation on the soundtrack), sitting at the counter and moaning to anyone who will listen about the way his life has fallen apart. Soon, Jacob (Ryan Gosling) a mysterious and incredibly smooth young lothario and expert pick-up artist, takes to Cal's cause, promising to condition him for the savage world of dating – new clothes, new haircut, etc. Cal is marginalized in his life (at his office his desk is even behind a pillar), and Jacob promises to make him center stage, mostly out of pity and to shut up his vocal misery. Meanwhile, Hannah (Emma Stone), after rebuffing Jacob's cheesy advances, is dealing with the possibility of marrying a milquetoast lawyer (Josh Groban – yes, that Josh Groban) at a firm where she's working, something her sassy best friend Liz (a cheeky Liza Lapira) explicitly advises against.
The film's clipped structure, written by Dan Fogelman ("Cars 2," "Bolt") accommodates these little satellites of the story (Robbie's continued romantic pursuit of Jessica is another key thread and one wholly absent from the marketing campaign) and while they can flow organically, there's some odd abrupt transitions and characters simply disappearing for long-stretches. Due to its fragmented nature, there's about thirty minutes where we don't even see the vivacious Emma Stone, but when she returns, she maintains a strong presence for the rest of the film. This approach mostly works on a thematic level, since many of the characters feel scattered to the wind, but falls apart during a slapsticky -- albeit funny -- climax -- that veers the picture into the absurd with a plot twist that feels too strained to be believable. And when trying to be life-affirming, a protracted denouement just feels like the brand of manipulative feel-goodery that this comedy generally aspires to be above.
But despite these sometimes glaring flaws, the picture's beguiling appeal still works and is saved by the actors who all put in a strong mix of dramatic and comedic turns (and we haven't even mentioned minor supporting parts by Marisa Tomei and John Carroll Lynch). Chemistry is a massive factor and Stone and Gosling have this in spades -- only the surface of this palpable alchemy is scratched (no wonder they are teaming up again so soon for "Gangster Squad"). Carell, whose allure has always been somewhat mystifying (do we want our movie stars to look like our fathers?), really shines here, in a toned down role that emphasizes emotional depth over out-and-out wackiness. The women shine in the picture as well, from Julianne Moore, who gives the kind of heartfelt performance she usually saves for Paul Thomas Anderson, to the aforementioned Emma Stone, who manages to be strong and vulnerable and sweet and sexy all at once. We also have to give out a high grade mark to Kevin Bacon's low-key turn as a superpower-less villain (of sorts).
But who are we kidding? This is mostly Ryan Gosling's show, and he steals many scenes with a kind of Steve McQueen cool every male wishes he had. Those of us who braved "Blue Valentine" last year know how powerful a performer he can be, but with his esoteric choices, he threatened to tip into oddball obscurity. Here, he firmly plants himself in giant movie star territory and by the end of the year (after the political drama "Ides of March" and Nicolas Winding Refn's action flick "Drive" open), we won't be surprised if he's thought of in the same breath as Hollywood's A-list if he isn't already there. He oozes allure and has unexpected comedic chops that are truly impressive. Scenes with Gosling showing Carell how to regain his manhood and dress are particularly amusing.
And that's the thing – "Crazy Stupid Love" is enjoyable funny. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote "Bad Santa" and Richard Linklater's "Bad News Bears," before helming last year's uneven "I Love You Phillip Morris," these filmmakers might not be best in class yet, but they generally know how to make you laugh. Even though their past experience has them firmly entrenched in the R-rated zone so many comedies have happily occupied this summer, 'Love' is PG-13, which makes it even more impressive – they milk chuckles without having to resort to played-out raunch tactics or showing off unnecessary flesh. The pair also seem to have a visual eye for theme, directing the "dating world" with cool, blown-out defining colors, while warmer autumnal hues accentuate Cal's family life.
It's easy to get swept away in the smile-inducing, sometimes even intoxicating charms of "Crazy, Stupid, Love," whether its Stone's captivating insouciance and wit, Gosling's dreamy cockeyed smirk, or Carrell's hangdog demeanor which makes you want to take him home and puppy him to death, but these elements shouldn't totally distract from some of the problematic, occasionally insipid aspects.
While the charisma, chemistry and cute comedy might be its strengths superficially, the film's secret weapon is the way it captures the pain and sadness that we often fall into in between break-up and reconciliation. The film also boasts a nifty score that has Nick Urata from DeVotchKa teaming up with composer Christophe Beck, which elevates the picture, imbuing it with a lithe, spirited and evervescent tone not unlike the score Urata's group is best remembered for, "Little Miss Sunshine." At times it does feel overlong (the subplot wherein Carell goes back to Julianne Moore's house to clean up the yard after everyone has fallen asleep is underdeveloped and unnecessary) and is sometimes guilty of the romantic comedy cardinal sin – using a pop song to express an emotion that the characters or script should have gotten across. But overall, the good outweighs the bad and "Crazy, Stupid, Love" is likely the most successful romantic comedy you'll see this summer; a warm, congenial and messy look at the misadventures of mismatched lovers and martial fissures that break us apart and bring us back together again. [B+]