Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
So many attempted leading men work better in smaller roles or scrappier films—think of how much more palatable Matthew McConaughey or Vin Diesel or Ryan Reynolds have been and would be in character parts. Ryan Gosling, though, has been developing the opposite: in his beloved indie turns, he's committed but also a touch mannered, in a minimalist sort of way. In movies like Half Nelson or Blue Valentine, he expends a lot of effort trying to seem like he's not acting.
But in a glossier Hollywood concoction, Gosling—whether he would cop to it or not – appears freer, more spontaneous. In Crazy, Stupid, Love, he plays Jacob, a young lothario who befriends and trains Cal (Steve Carell), a depressed schlub on the verge of divorce, and Gosling brings deadpan humor and even a little mystery to what could've been a familiar smoothie routine. He generates chemistry with whoever the movie throws at him: Carell, in comic montages where Jacob explains the importance of expensive clothes, or Emma Stone, during an extended sequence that begins as one of Jacob's one-night stands but ends as something else entirely.
Crazy, Stupid, Love's wandering eye for interlocking stories is one of the best things about it; it brings us the Stone-Gosling relationship, as well as the sweetly awkward feelings that Cal's son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) develops and expresses for his babysitter (Analeigh Tipton). But the filmmakers keep circling back to Carell's Cal and his maybe-ex Emily (Julianne Moore). Carell does his now-familiar sad-sack routine, words catching in his mouth with anxiety, but unlike The 40-Year-Old Virgin or even Dan in Real Life, the movie follows his lead into sad-eyed moping. Cal learns how to bed beautiful women, including a wild teacher played by Marisa Tomei (usually excellent, but overdoing it a little here), but he pines for his wife, and the movie does, too, feeling square and mushy along the way, telegraphing the idea that Cal should win Emily back.
There's nothing wrong with a comedy of remarriage, a subgenre which describes some of the best romantic movies ever made. But Crazy, Stupid, Love is so crazily, stupidly sentimental about marriage not as a relationship, but really, as a concept: it never gives us as much as a scene of actual romantic chemistry between Carell and Moore. They have moments of unguarded connection when discussing their son—and indeed, the parent-child relationships in the movie are often warm and fresh—but these have little to do with love and everything to do with familiarity. The movie obsessively repeats the word "soulmate" like a fix-all incantation, to the point that it feels downright unromantic, even didactic.
This is surprising coming from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who made I Love You, Philip Morris, a wildly unconventional (and hilarious) story of, come to think of it, craziness, stupidity, and love. Here they work from a screenplay by Dan Fogelman, who has to this point worked on Disney cartoons; frankly, this live-action offering could use the snap of something like Tangled. He gets off some funny lines and cooks up some amusing (if broad) situations, but many of his scenes feel like writing exercises (write a scene to show that Cal shuts down in the face of confrontation with his wife; write a scene where one of Jacob's pick-ups is stymied), and everyone says "really?!" and "seriously?"! all the time, allowing this technique to take the crown of hackiest, fakest sounding non-punchline in current Hollywood. When Gosling and Stone share the screen, it's hard not to wonder if they're improvising a bit—unfair, perhaps, but indicative of just how much better and funnier the movie gets when they turn up.
But really, all of the actors, including engaging newcomer Tipton, are better than this material. They make the movie an easy but frustrating sit, a romantic comedy-drama with the ambition to reach more emotional and realistic territory but lacking the discipline to jettison climactic big speeches or the idea that the divorce of high-school sweethearts is a tragedy. Movie romances that aren't as self-aware or real as they think are nothing new, but at least the recent Friends with Benefits is consistently funny; Crazy, Stupid, Love is too squishy to form the sharp edges it needs.
Opens July 29