Imagine a restaurant meal that starts with an inventive charcuterie board, continues with an iceberg-lettuce salad, segues into a nice hunk of beef marinated in boozy sauce, and concludes with Jell-O and Cool Whip. That’s roughly analogous to the experience of watching Crazy, Stupid, Love.
For each dark, tangy or authentic moment this romantic comedy offers, there are several scenes of overprocessed, underspiced Hollywood fare. The writing team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Bad Santa) made their directorial debut last year with I Love You Phillip Morris, a film that gleefully mocked every movie cliché of romance and domesticity, yet never gave viewers much reason to care. By contrast, the far more commercial Crazy, Stupid, Love. (written by Dan Fogelman) bends over backward to make us care about a half-dozen connected characters struggling with issues of finding, winning or keeping a soulmate. Or, if all else fails, stalking one.
Steve Carell plays Cal, a soft-spoken suburban dad whose cozy existence frays when his wife of 25 years, Emily (Julianne Moore), leaves him. The movie’s most original conceit is that Cal could easily have averted this crazy, stupid breakup, because Emily’s guilty yammering makes it obvious she still loves him. Her husband, however, is so mortified by her confession that she slept with a coworker (Kevin Bacon) that he’d rather jump from a moving car than hear her out to the tearful apology. The audience already knows how the film will end: with a reunion. The question is, How many laughs will we get along the way?
Liberated from his marriage, Cal spends his evenings in a soulless pickup bar complaining about being a cuckold to anyone who will listen. Few do, but eventually one of the other barflies, a slick young player named Jacob (Ryan Gosling), offers to teach Cal the tricks of his trade and help him “rediscover his manhood.” It works — sort of.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the movie, Cal’s lovesick 13-year-old son (Jonah Bobo) is striving to win the heart of his older babysitter (Analeigh Tipton), who herself is enamored of Cal. If this subplot sounds like contrived and cloying farce, it is, though the young actors don’t embarrass themselves as much as their characters do.
Finally, even pickup artist Jacob starts feeling the love when he meets a straitlaced law student (Emma Stone) who doesn’t fall for his standard moves. Stone and Gosling have one scene together that’s a screwball showstopper — call it the boozy beef course. But it might as well be their last, since their characters are subsequently reduced to props while the kids and the midlifers work out their issues.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. is an above-average romantic comedy with a decent quotient of laughs, but it relies too much on wacky coincidences and heartwarming homilies to fulfill the promise of its initial scenes. When the script tries for farce or poignancy, it skirts perilously close to the Velveeta territory of Valentine’s Day.
That’s unfortunate, because there’s potential for meaty tragicomedy in the tale of Cal’s abject devotion to Emily (which dates from middle school), her dissatisfaction with his unwavering adoration and his sense of emasculation when she defects. Carell has perfected the role of the mealymouthed nice guy with a dark side, and some of his throwaway reactions are the funniest bits in the film. Now he just needs to take a cue from his Oscar-nominated costars and move beyond the cinematic equivalent of fast food.