Friday, August 5, 2011

Love is a Battlefield: CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a romantic comedy that tries to do something new but in the process finds only stale ways to do the same old things. It’s a film with a deeply talented ensemble that walks through intertwining rom-com plotlines, but at the core the whole thing is flat and unconvincing. It has one foot in low-key observational humor and another in broad sentimental jokiness with no idea how to reconcile the two. As a result, the film lurches from moment to moment and, though individual scenes and performances can be quite good, the whole thing is nothing more than a disappointment.

The film stars Steve Carell and Julianne Moore as a married couple of twenty-five years. We are quickly made aware of their deteriorating relationship in an opening scene that makes economical use of editing and framing. We see a bustling restaurant from the point of view of several pairs of feet in fancy shoes, one after the other paired off playing footsie. Then, we cut to two pairs of feet that are stationary and separated with shoes of decidedly lower quality and flashiness. These feet belong to Carell and Moore as they sit with their dessert menus trying to decide what they want. “Why don’t we say what we want at the same time?” Carell suggests. So they do. He says “crème brûlée.” She says “a divorce.”

From there on out we follow Carell as he tries to get back into the dating game with the help of a ladies’ man (Ryan Gosling) he runs into at a local bar. Meanwhile, his soon-to-be-ex wife makes tentative steps towards an office romance with her company’s accountant (Kevin Bacon). Sprinkled throughout the main thrust of the plot, their thirteen-year-old son (Jonah Bobo) wrestles with his crush on the teenage girl (Analeigh Tipton) who babysits his little sister (Joey King) while the ladies’ man may have finally found the one perfect girl (Emma Stone) who will make him decide to settle down.

Writer Dan Fogelman, who has also written Tangled and Cars (how’s that for variety?), weaves the various plot threads together as clumsily as he handles the tone. The characters are sometimes well drawn and other times seem to be barely more than a one-note joke. Take Marisa Tomei, who shows up in a handful of scenes in barely more than a cameo, for an example that’s indicative of the strange approach the film takes. Her character, a woman who is picked up at the bar by Carell, is made the butt of relentless sexist jokes. She’s ridiculed for being aggressive in her pursuit of a relationship, then ridiculed for later expressing surprise that Carell doesn’t call her back. When she reappears in a crowd of people during the climax, all she can do is sit on the sidelines and shoot daggers with her gaze as she flips him the bird. What a waffling, cruel way to treat a character, not only by the film but also by the characters within it.

Similar problems exist with the Gosling character. Now, Gosling is super charming and his rakish role works just fine, but by the time the film makes an attempt at deepening the character, it feels forced. It’s fun to see his wandering ways tamed by Emma Stone, who flips the power balance in the relationship, but it doesn’t feel like it should move as fast as it does. Far more honest and patient is the way Bobo’s puppy love is handled, at least until it becomes precocious mawkish speechifying in the final twenty minutes before returning to subtlety in the end, giving him the final shot of the film. In fact, his is the most compelling of the plot lines. Maybe this should have been his coming-of-age story instead of an I-still-love-my-ex divorcee’s fantasy. Carell and Moore do all the heavy lifting with characterization that the screenplay doesn't quite give them. They communicate more in body language than they do through speaking.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who directed last year’s I Love You, Phillip Morris, a terrific raunchy based-on-a-true-story farce, do their best impression of a mid-80’s James L. Brooks or perhaps a mid-90’s Cameron Crowe, but the script just isn’t up to their level of craftsmanship. There are scenes here that shine. I especially loved a late backyard confrontation that features every character’s secret revealed in a believably funny and tense way. Perhaps what the film lacks most is an intensity and immediacy that comes forth in that moment and in others like that opening scene, or some of the material between Bobo and Tipton, or the first real date between Gosling and Stone. There’s great stuff here, but not, unfortunately, a great movie.

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