Review: ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’

Will Leitch

1. There are scenes in "Crazy, Stupid, Love." that are so perfect, so delightful, well-observed, that it's that much more frustrating how sloppy and slapdash the rest of the movie is. It features deeply appealing performances almost across the board, and at least makes an effort to tackle actual adult issues in a way you won't see in almost any other romantic comedies. But its plotting is slack and lazy, with unnecessary characters tossed in solely to move the story along in an artificial fashion, and it has a tendency to settle its more prickly questions through cartoonish sitcommy simplifications meant to make the audience feel better. There is so much great about "Crazy, Stupid, Love." that its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, but man, what could have been.

2. The film has ambition to spare (as evidenced by that heavily punctuated title), with so many plotlines and characters floating around that you get the sense occasionally that the movie almost forgets what's all going on. The center of the film is Cal (Steve Carell), a 44-year-old family man whose wife Emily (Julianne Moore) has an affair and announces she wants a divorce. From then, the plot wheezes into motion. Cal meets ladies man Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who does a "Queer Eye" on him and teaches him to meet women; a young lawyer (Emma Stone) is unfulfilled by her boyfriend and career; Cal's 13-year-old son is in love with his babysitter, who in turn (improbably) is in love with Cal. Much of this is contrived and silly, but the performances are warm enough, and Glenn Ficarra's and John Requa's direction lively enough, to keep things moving. Mostly, though, the movie is kept aloft by the small moments, allowing us to ignore the creaking of the plot mechinations.

3. The movie becomes a back-and-forth tennis match between its lovely little moments and a succession of plot groaners that make you feel silly for investing so much in the characters in the first place. A pitch-perfect seduction scene between Gosling and Stone is followed by a ridiculous plot twist involving Cal and a teacher at his school. The byplay between Carell and Gosling -- who work off each other quite well; Carell is the ideal counterpoint to Gosling's studied ACTOR! tics -- transcends the artificiality of their relationship as written, but then the movie sells them out by settling their conflicts with a pratfalling fight scene. Carell and Moore have a splendid little scene in which they both pretend to be having a mundane conversation that's actually so much more, but the movie can think of no better way to resolve their issues than by A Big Speech In Front Of Everyone. The movie keeps wading dumbly into so many contrived scenes that you want to shake it: Stop this! You were doing so well! When you really think about it, Stone's character makes no sense whatsoever, and she only comes to life when she starts the byplay with Gosling. A whole sideplot with a babysitter and her gossipy parents is distracting and pointless, and you can make a strong argument the whole family should have been written out all together. Screenwriter Dan Fogelman has a rare talent at scene construction and a way with a pop-culture quip -- I liked when Cal realizes that Jacob has been "Miyagi-ing" him -- but really didn't think through the ramifications of his characters' actions all that closely; they end up less human beings than pieces on the board.

4. The movie earns fountains of goodwill through its cast, though, which, with the possible exception of Marisa Tomei (who has the worst, most broad character), is uniformly excellent. These are actors you root for. Carell has become an ideal leading man not just because of his inherent likability, but his warmth with other actors: You can tell they secretly all look forward to their scenes with Steve. Moore has a thinly written part that it feels like she's played before, but she whittles off the harder edges to meet the tone of the movie. Stone has a rare ability to be caustic and cynical yet hopeful in a way that feels new, almost generational; she's a running commentary on emotions she hasn't yet, while still being blown away by them when they come. But the movie soars every second Gosling's on screen. For the first time -- in my eyes, anyway -- his obvious talent isn't masked by his mannerisms and look-at-me-ness: He finds the right note for his character and hits it repeatedly, the embodiment of that old cliche of the lovable rogue with a soft gooey center, but with a spin that's uniquely his. Gosling is making a clear play for stardom this year, and he couldn't have come up with a better first move than this one: He's terrific.

5. I still can't help but wonder if this is a little bit like the "Parenthood" of romance: A gimmicky attempt at a grand epic statement About Love that's really just about the quirks of talented actors and a few individual scenes that pop. (My favorite is still when Jacob does his "Dirty Dancing" move on Stone's Hannah. I have no doubt that such a move always, always works.) That is not for nothing: It's pretty difficult to leave "Crazy, Stupid, Love." without a goofy smile on your face, even if the plot seams are obvious and even if you've been a little manipulated. I wanted to keep hanging around with the characters in this film, but in a different context, outside of a movie that just keeps yanking them to and fro. This is a movie with a bigger heart than a brain. As frustrating as it can be, still, there are worse offenses.

Grade: B