(by Dustin Putman
Love can make you crazy, and it can sometimes cause you to act stupid. It also can be, above everything else, the thing that makes life worth living. Platonic, romantic, and whatever kind might be in between, what sort of world would it be without it? An ode to this very topic, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." doesn't exactly rewrite the rule books (didn't 2003's "Love Actually" already beat it to the punch?), but when it's good, it's very, very good, hitting notes of honesty and perception with the precise aim of an ace archer who knows a thing or two about joys and aches of the heart. When it stumbles by going too broad or being unable to resist moldy situational conventions, frustration sets in. Glenn Ficarra's and John Requa's (2010's "I Love You Phillip Morris") directorial ambitions are greater than what is achieved, but they've got a stellar ensemble cast on their side and enough that's right to offset the wrongs. Article continues below
For an actor who is generally thought of as comedic in nature, Steve Carell (2010's "Date Night") does one better by also bringing a palpable gravitas to his roles. He isn't a funny guy who one can sense struggling to put on a serious face from time to time, but a legitimate actor who treats each of his characters and their journeys with natural emotional instincts. Carell adds another terrific turn to his resumé as Cal Weaver, a 44-year-old husband and father left shell-shocked when wife Emily (Julianne Moore) announces that she cheated on him and wants a divorce. Cal has been with Emily since they were both fifteen, and she's all he's ever known. He liked it that way. Suddenly single and living in an apartment, he hits the bars out of sheer listlessness, offering up his sad-sack story to anyone within earshot. Tired of listening to his whining, professional womanizer Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) throws him a bone by making it his mission to give Cal a total makeover and a newfound confidence with which to tackle the opposite sex. He gets a nice haircut, he starts dressing better, and pretty soon the ladies follow. None of them, however, can come close to comparing to Emily. Now more than ever, Cal is certain who he's meant to be with.
The quirkily-titled "Crazy, Stupid, Love." (two commas and a period?) revolves around an approximate one year in the life of Cal Weaver, but screenwriter Dan Fogelman (2010's "Tangled") branches out from him to analyze other couplings. Jacob has an impeccable house, a sleek personal style, and a self-assuredness that ensures he takes home a different woman every night. He's not equipped to deal with serious relationships, but then he meets Hannah (Emma Stone) and changes his tune. Jacob has tried to pick her up before, only to be shot down, but Hannah remembers him. She's just passed her BAR exam and is set to become a lawyer, but she also sees that she does not fit in with her colleagues, among them straight-laced boyfriend Richard (Josh Groban). In a moment of partial desperation, partial curiosity, and partial drunkenness, Hannah makes a move in Jacob's direction and then can't believe how much they hit it off thereafter. Back at the Weavers', as Emily starts regretting her decision to separate from Cal while lightly exploring other options—namely, co-worker David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon)—13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is experiencing his first pangs of love toward 17-year-old babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton). Unfortunately, she's got her own crush, one destined to end in disappointment: Robbie's dad Cal.
The characters in "Crazy, Stupid, Love." do not feel like archetypes of the romantic comedy genre, but like people as authentic as you and I. The actions they take, the decisions they make, the mistakes they must go through in order to recognize what they really want—all of this is carried out with a thoughtful complexity that lifts them, and the film, a notch above what is typically found in like-minded studio fare. Cal's initial lost loneliness over his collapsed marriage and his decision to latch onto Jacob because he's paying him some attention—better than the alternative, for sure—ring true. So, too, do scenes where Cal and Emily experience regret about where they ended up as a couple. There isn't huge hostility between them, but a lived-in fondness and knowledge of each other even after they split. Both of them wonder what happened, and both, in their own ways, are to blame for letting the interest slip out of their marriage. That same earnestness carries over to eighth-grader Robbie, who, like most 13-year-olds, thinks he knows it all and has some strong opinions to go along with his heartbreaks. He is sure that he loves Jessica, who is four years his senior—to make his case, he texts her that Demi is fifteen years older than Ashton and they still seem happy—and he also has a strong viewpoint on school assignment "The Scarlet Letter" (including what he believes the "A" stands for instead of "adulterer"). As for Jacob and Hannah, when they find themselves back at Jacob's pad, a planned sexual encounter transforms into something deeper and more meaningful as she sizes him up and he, for what could be the first time, drops his defenses in the company of a woman. It's a pretty spectacular sequence, written and performed with refreshing candor and hugely funny, to boot (weaving in "Dirty Dancing" as a plot point sounds obvious but is delivered ingeniously).
If the picture's various narrative strands are interwoven well enough, not all of them lead to as much as one expects. This is particularly the case between Jacob and Hannah who, after their initial getting-to-know-you set-piece, are suddenly a happy, seemingly care-free couple. Hannah doesn't question Jacob's harried past (he has been living as a virtual man-whore his whole adult life) and there is no payoff to whether or not she still wants to be a lawyer. There also is no examination on Jacob's behalf in suddenly being in a committed relationship, a concept brought up in passing to Cal, but not dealt with and promptly forgotten about. If Jacob's and Hannah's participation in the story basically peters out by the end, Jacob's growth as a person—someone who talks about himself on occasion rather than constantly trying to get into a girl's pants—is left wanting. He still seems somehow smarmy and emotionally closed-off in the final scenes; his arc, no fault of Ryan Gosling's (2010's "Blue Valentine") seductively charismatic performance, should have been given closer attention by the screenplay. As Hannah, Emma Stone (2010's "Easy A") is as delightful as she always is, a master in her own right of comedic timing and down-to-earth levity. Her scenes with Liza Lapira (2008's "21"), an energetic eye-catcher as best friend Liz, are memorable, while the ones involving boyfriend Richard are too few and too undernourished to hardly even establish what their relationship is like.
Where "Crazy, Stupid, Love." most significantly falters are in the moments where realism takes a backseat to ill-fitting screwball theatricals and a propensity for clichés. A parent-teacher conference at Robbie's school reveals the surprising identity of someone Cal would rather Emily not know about, and it's both contrived and annoyingly broad in how it plays out. Worse still is a climactic backyard rumble where nearly every plot thread and every central character conveniently—and loudly—coincide at the exact same time. It is artificial in the extreme, seeming like it should be in an entirely different movie than the one it's been conceived within. A graduation speech at Robbie's middle school follows soon after where Cal lays his heart on the line in front of an auditorium filled with people. It's way too calculated for its own good, but at least it leads into final scenes that recapture the overriding gentle, touching sincerity of what's largely come before.
Does "Crazy, Stupid, Love." live up to the heights that it might have with a quick once-over rewrite and a fleshing-out of a couple key characters? No, sadly it doesn't. But what is never in question is that the film is about human beings rather than script constructs, and that's half the battle when it comes to films made within the major Hollywood studio system. The sharp performances are the highlight. In addition to Carrell, Gosling and Stone, Julianne Moore (2010's "Chloe") is exquisite as Emily, making sure that she comes off as flawed yet sympathetic, a woman going through a midlife crisis and not sure what she wants. Analeigh Tipton (2011's "The Green Hornet") is a welcome fresh find as babysitter Jessica, whose infatuation with Cal leads her down some prickly roads toward a clearer understanding of her own self-worth. And last but not least, Jonah Bobo (2008's "Choke") threatens to steal the picture as the starry-eyed Robbie, destined for his heart to permanently be on his sleeve. He not only holds his own with his older, more experienced co-stars, but his soulful turn is the one viewers may just find themselves thinking back upon once the film is over. "Crazy, Stupid, Love." doesn't necessarily break ground in what it has to say about love, but then, what is there to say that can't be accurately captured by the human experience? Warts and all, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa understand the ins and outs and complicated beauty of relationships.