Friday, July 29, 2011

Crazy, Stupid Love: Hilarious, painful truths

Crazy, Stupid Love (2011) • View trailer for Crazy, Stupid Love
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for profanity, coarse humor and unrelenting sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.29.11

Some of them sneak up on us.

Its excellent ensemble cast notwithstanding, Crazy, Stupid Love risked being lumped in with the numerous smutty farces we've endured this year, starting with The Dilemma and Hall Pass, and continuing all the way up through Horrible Bosses and the as-yet unreleased The Change-Up. Some of these misfires have purported to be romantic comedies; others simply made fun of the gender divide. Most have been ho-hum at best, downright dreadful at worst.
Watching not terribly clandestinely from the bar, Cal (Steve Carell, rear)
analyzes the moves being demonstrated by new friend Jacob (Ryan Gosling), as
he smoothly and successfully picks up yet another willing woman. Cal, trying
to navigate the dating scene he never really experienced back in his own youth,
still has a long way to go...

Crazy, Stupid Love does not belong in their company.

By turns hilarious, poignant, witty and painfully perceptive, this ode to love spurned and unrequited is the nearest thing I've found to a successful American riff on a classic French sex farce. Hollywood generally does quite badly when attempting to reproduce French comedies, particularly those with an erotic element. Indeed, this film's Steve Carell was in one of the recent bombs, last year's Dinner for Schmucks.

Somehow, what's often funny and sensual in a French film, winds up looking desperate, clumsy and merely smarmy when filtered through our Puritanical sensibilities.

Dan Fogelman probably wasn't even trying for Gallic tone or momentum when scripting Crazy, Stupid Love, and that may be why he nailed it so well. This is new territory for Fogelman, best known until now for collaborating on the scripts for animated fare such as Tangled, Bolt and both of Pixar's Cars movies. His only big-screen live-action effort, 2007's Fred Claus, was a debacle.

So where did he come up with the romantic and relationship savvy executed so well here? Doesn't really matter, of course; we care only about the result ... which is delightful.

Credit goes, as well, to the directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, best known to this point for having co-scripted 2003's hilariously vulgar Bad Santa. This is their second directing effort, coming after 2009's modestly amusing I Love You, Phillip Morris, which they also wrote; sadly, that film became no more than another of star Jim Carrey's recent nonstarters.

A fate Crazy, Stupid Love most certainly will be spared.

Cal (Carell), contemplating dessert options after a quiet dinner out with wife Emily (Julianne Moore), is stunned when she declines a tort in favor of a divorce. Driven to nervous chatter by Cal's stricken immobility, Emily compounds the awkward moment by confessing an affair with a guy at work.

The bloody aftermath of this ghastly scene becomes even worse when it's witnessed, at home, by their young daughter (Joey King, as Molly), 13-year-old son (Jonah Bobo, as Robbie) and the visiting 17-year-old babysitter (Analeigh Tipton, as Jessica). The latter is particularly anguished to see Cal in such pain, because she nurtures a secret crush on him.

Jessica tries to work up the courage to make a clumsy pass when Cal drives her home, but it never quite emerges. Fortunately.

To make matters worse, Robbie is madly in love with Jessica himself, despite an equally insurmountable age difference; no romantic gesture is too extravagant, since the boy believes that she's his soul mate.

Elsewhere, while enjoying a girls' night out, spunky Liz (Liza Lapira) badgers best friend and aspiring lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone) about her going-nowhere relationship with Richard (Josh Groban). Hannah doesn't see it that way, and thus rejects a smooth, self-assured pick-up effort by Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a superbly dressed and well-mannered hunk who makes Liz's eyes pop out.

Stone, reaffirming yet again that her Hollywood visibility is skyrocketing for a good reason, scores anew with Emily's smoldering, show-me self-assurance. And one helluva well-timed smirk.

Cal, honorably moving out into his own apartment, winds up drowning his sorrows — quite noisily — at a neighborhood tavern. His eyes lights up, one or two evenings into his misery, at the arrival of longtime friend Bernie (John Carroll Lynch). But images of hail-fellow-well-met sympathy are dashed when Bernie admits that he has come merely to "dump" his buddy.

"My wife said we had to choose," Bernie confesses. "She chose Emily."


Carell's woeful expression, at this betrayal, is pure poetry; nobody can look more hilariously mournful. We laugh, feel bad about it, then laugh harder.

Turns out, as Cal subsequently slides even further into alcoholic recriminations, that this particular watering hole is Jacob's favorite haunt. Motivated by an impulse we'll not understand for awhile, Jacob decides to help Cal regain his manhood. ("Do you remember where you lost it?") With no better options, Cal submits to the subsequent makeover and dating tips from this younger, well-seasoned pro.

And it must be said: Jacob's lines may be clichéd and at times even embarrassing, but the drop-dead gorgeous Gosling delivers them with such savoir faire that he probably could hustle half the women swooning in the theater audience. Somehow, Jacob's behavior as an unapologetic babe hound skirts being offensive and condescending; after all, what woman would have turned down (for example) Warren Beatty in his prime?

All these various encounters are accompanied by some wonderfully arch one-liners, many dropped with impeccable timing. Lapira, late of television's Dollhouse, never misses; her delivery is to die for. Carell is the master, of course, and the sassy Stone isn't far behind.

All these characters are miserable, each one wanting somebody who's either unavailable or ill-advised. Cal, doing his best to plunge into the dating pool, still pines for Emily. Hannah waits patiently for Richard to propose. Robbie continually humiliates himself — and Jessica — with wildly theatrical declarations of love. Jessica, now viewing Cal as "attainable," confers with a chatty high school slut on the best way to catch the attention of an "older man."

Send him a naked photo, Jessica is told. (Uh-oh.)

This already strong ensemble cast is further strengthened by a few bonuses. Kevin Bacon pops up as David, the home-wrecker Emily can't get out of her head. Cue a marvelous face-off between David and young Robbie, who defiantly insists that his parents are destined to re-unite.

Marisa Tomei plays Cal's first conquest, a five-years-sober schoolteacher with a somewhat, ah, torrid response to unabashed honesty. Tomei has been funny in a lot of movies, but her firecracker intensity here hearkens back to her Academy Award-winning turn in 1992's My Cousin Vinny. More than any other character, Tomei's Kate threatens this film's PG-13 rating (which is rather generous, given the sexual heat generated both by inference and just-off-camera activity).

Ficarra and Requa orchestrate the resulting skirmishes, encounters and misfires with the confident élan of seasoned choreographers. I've not even touched the surface with respect to choice scenes or tart exchange of dialogue, not to mention the clever way this story breathes new life into an already iconic moment from Dirty Dancing.

The directors also draw uniformly strong performances from each actor, while working hard to ensure that every character gets adequate screen time. A few hiccups surface; little Molly is shunted aside until the third act, at which point we finally recognize King as the spirited young actress who played Ramona, in last year's Ramona and Beezus. Her early relegation to the sidelines seems odd.

A bit more critically, Emily emerges at first blush as a shallow, mean-spirited shrike: a judgment in keeping with the brittle, hard-edged shell Moore brings to many of her roles. But this story demands that we like Emily — because Cal can't stop loving her — and that's initially an uphill battle. Fortunately, Moore eventually reveals her character's vulnerability and confusion, and we begin to share Robbie's hope for a miracle.

Ficarre and Requa also craft their film cleverly, segueing smoothly from one set of characters to another, pausing for unexpectedly poignant conversations between — for example — Cal and Robbie, as they play catch in the parking lot outside the former's spartan apartment. And one montage, following the newly invigorated Cal as he works his charismatic mojo on various women throughout the bar, is a masterpiece of camera trickery. I've no idea how this scene was pulled off, but it's a stunner.

Fogelman's increasingly clever script uncorks several surprises, each one prompting raised eyebrows and chuckles of admiration. I'm once again reminded, in this genre as with any other, that the key element is story, story, story. Fogelman delivers a corker, and if the resulting film runs a bit long (118 minutes), the characters are too engaging to wear out their welcome.

Crazy, Stupid Love is a hoot. See it quickly, before thoughtless friends spoil any of its unexpected delights.

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