Cal (Steve Carrell) finds out that his wife (Julianne Moore) has been unfaithful, which sends him on a self-loathing spiral to a singles’ bar. A handsome ladies’ man named Jacob (played by Ryan Gosling) notices Cal’s nightly displays of drunken sulking and decides to teach him how to be a pick up artist. Meanwhile, Jacob finds himself falling for an unobtainable beauty (Emma Stone) who isn’t sure what she wants in a man but knows it isn’t Jacob, whose smooth one-liners turn her off. We also have the high school romance between Cal’s son (newcomer Jonah Bobo) who is in love with his babysitter (Analeigh Tipton, the film’s biggest discovery). There are also subplots with colorful roles provided for Kevin Bacon, Marisa Tomei and, in a respectable acting debut, crooner Josh Groban.
The biggest problem with this overloaded ensemble comedy/drama is that the screenplay is too focused on surprising and misdirecting audiences; many scenes don’t feel remotely real. The points the film has to make about love are complex and universal, but the world it takes place in is clearly a fantasy. Yet despite many contrivances and some dumb choices (like a misguided nod to The Scarlet Letter), wonderful moments shine through and the cast makes it work.
Back in sad-sack Dan in Real Life mode, Carrell is in top form and pulls off some dramatically demanding moments. Moore tones down her tendency to play out of control spouses as shrill monsters and finds complex angles in an almost unsympathetic character.
Best of all is Gosling, the Sean Penn of his generation, who uses his keen understanding of human nature and extraordinary acting talents to shape a vivid and most enjoyable comic figure. Gosling’s great work is the best thing about the film’s shaky first half, where the sitcom-level dialogue is relentless.
The actors are frequently better than the script but the film finds its footing at the mid-point. The weaker scenes are overly familiar comic scenarios (like embarrassing public declarations of love and misunderstandings that lead to fist fights) that the film fails to make fresh.
The screenplay feels like this should have been a low budget, prototypically quirky “indie” lark. Instead, as is the case with Juno, the story is offbeat and character-driven but the talent involved and production are all big league. I’m not complaining that Warner Brothers funded such an obviously Miramax-y film, just that the definition of “an independent film” gets glossier. Crazy, Stupid, Love works as far as that goes but seemingly gone are the days when something “dangerous” like Blue Velvet or The Crying Game truly challenged adventurous audiences attending Grade-A art house movies.
The film’s tone and story structure are quite similar to Playing by Heart, which also had wonderful actors and moments clashing with too many forced surprises.
Few films can be so hilarious and heartbreaking when dealing with the messy topic of long lasting relationships and how you have to fight for them. While uneven and containing some missteps, I was touched by it and the performances, particularly by Gosling and Tipton, who make it essential summer viewing.