Facing a midlife rom-com crisis
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 29, 2011
Steve Carell seems to be making a bid to be the next Tom Hanks, which makes sense for any actor navigating his way out of the TV and comedy ghettoes, but which is also fraught with danger. In recent years, Hanks has deigned to accept only roles that cast him as a paragon of integrity and soft-spoken heroism, shrewdly pruning his on-screen myth while carefully maintaining a persona of utter guilelessness.
Carell teeters on the brink of the same kind of self-congratulatory career-molding in "Crazy, Stupid, Love," in which he basically resurrects his "40-Year-Old Virgin" character, recasting him as a long-married man who plunges into the dating scene after sleeping with only one woman for 25 years. The movie opens with a clever montage of couples' feet engaging in all manner of furtive flirtation under restaurant tables. When the camera lands on Cal Weaver (Carell) and his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), their troubles are clear. She's wearing come-hither heels while Cal is decked out in shlumpy New Balance sneakers.
In other words, she's still trying but Cal has given up, which accounts for why Emily announces at that same restaurant that she wants a divorce (while he was thinking creme brulee). He numbly agrees, moves out of their comfortable house and into a depressing bachelor pad and begins hitting a singles bar, where he comes under the tutelage of serial seducer Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), a playah Pygmalion who takes Cal on as a personal makeover project. "I'm going to help you rediscover your manhood," Jacob tells Cal. "Do you have any idea when you lost it?" "A strong case can be made for 1984," Cal replies wanly.
What ensues is the kind of smooth, fitfully funny, finely machined romantic comedy that is expertly calibrated to hit all the rom-com happy places. Cal and Jacob make an appealing bromantic couple, with Gosling especially alluring as a lithe, self-regarding tomcat - it's a given that Gosling is a great actor (yes, great: Watch "The Believer," "Half Nelson" and "Blue Valentine" if you don't believe me), which means he knows the secret to comedy is playing it straight. Although "Crazy, Stupid, Love" is nominally about Cal (revealingly, it's the first movie Carell has produced, and the first he has starred in since leaving "The Office"), its best scenes feature sex-on-a-stick Gosling, especially when Jacob meets a lawyer named Hannah (Emma Stone), who may be the first woman with congenital immunity to his charms.
It would be dishonest to say there's no humor or outright pleasure to be had in "Crazy, Stupid, Love," especially at the hands of Gosling, whose seductive command presence suggests we may have found our next George Clooney. And there are universal human foibles and truths at its heart, especially having to do with the midlife ennui that can torpedo the strongest marriage, as well as the abiding theme of men grappling with a slipping sense of self. But where that subject was tackled by characters who were somewhat recognizable in, say, "Win Win," the world of "Crazy, Stupid, Love" is as ersatz as the satirical movie-within-a-movie in "Friends With Benefits" (another more believable film), where palm trees popped out from behind fake Manhattan backdrops and Jason Segel uttered catchphrases such as "I guess New York is all out of blueberries."
Admittedly, "Crazy, Stupid, Love" takes place in California, so the palm trees are legit. But, especially in its screwball third act, what the filmmakers clearly meant to be sweet and lighthearted instead too often feels forced, contrived and hopelessly banal ("I don't know when you and I stopped being 'us,' " Emily says at one point). In one of the film's several subplots, Cal's son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) develops a crush on an older woman, a scenario that recalls "Rushmore" in its bittersweet comic potential. But here it's no more than a way to drive home the film's threadbare theme - if you find your soulmate, fight for her - rather than delve into any genuinely new or quirky terrain of human behavior.
Of course Hollywood has never been about reality - especially during the summer, when comic book escapism rules the narrative roost - but adult dramas and comedies should at least have a toe in their audience's lives. With its contrived setups, preposterous coincidences and calculated sentimentalism, "Crazy, Stupid, Love" seems beamed from the same alternate reality as "Larry Crowne" (directed by and starring none other than Tom Hanks). We might enjoy the ride while we're on it, but it will seem like a visit to another planet once we're home.