People have been ringing the death knell of the romantic comedy for years now. As a genre, it’s cliché-ridden. It’s corny. Worst of all, it’s bland. Besides, in the age of hook-ups, does anyone still believe in love? And yet, Hollywood keeps churning them out, in different iterations, in the hopes that it can reignite some of the old black magic that masters from Lubitsch through Ephron cast on generations of moviegoers. Truth be told, no matter how cynical we may be, no one wants to quite let go of the dream that true love awaits us. That blend of thinly-veiled cynicism hiding tender romanticism might be the only viable modern take; at any rate, it’s one that “Crazy, Stupid Love”, opening this week (Friday, July 29th), explores with varied success.Long-time marrieds Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily Weaver (Julianne Moore) are on their weekly date when Emily breaks the news that she wants a divorce. As she drives a dumbstruck Cal home, Emily further reveals that she’s had an affair. Shell-shocked, Cal blurts out the news to the babysitter as soon as he gets home, unaware that their 13 year-old son Robbie is present. In another part of town, pick-up artist Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) works his moves on best friends Liz (Liza Lapira) and Hannah (Emma Stone). But Hanna sees right through his cheesy come-on lines and leaves, unimpressed.
In the meantime, Cal moves out and attempts to get over his heartbreak by hanging out at seemingly the only bar in town and pouring his heart out to everyone. It goes without saying that Cal and Jacob end up meeting and becoming buddies. For some reason not ever explained, Jacob takes it upon himself to help Cal “rediscover his manhood.” At some point in the past millennia, that might have entailed heeding the call of the wild by learning to fish and hunt, wrestling a lion to the ground with your bare hands, and deftly scalping your enemy with the edge of a sharpened stone. In our more genteel age, it largely consists of a trip to the mall for a new wardrobe, a haircut and, a key ritual, the sacrificial divestment of a pair of beloved 407 New Balance sneakers by chucking them unto the food court. (Lest you laugh, I’d like to remind you that given the number of bacteria the average pair of sneakers harbors and the high likelihood of being sued by whoever gets lobbed on the head by this projectile, this rite is not without risks). So there you go.
The crowning achievement in this endeavor is, of course, the ability to reel in pretty young ladies by affecting –without ever actually experiencing –, genuine interest and then seducing them with a signature Patrick Swayze move. (Actually, I wonder, how many 20-somethings have actually seen Dirty Dancing, by a show of hands, please? I’m genuinely curious.) Hollywood has always succeeded at eating its cake and having it too; so this section of the movie, in which the playboy is depicted as a ridiculous, mannered lout that nevertheless inspires grudging admiration, is terrific fun. The audience ate it up. After all, who among us has not vowed to get back at a cheating lover by coldly bedding an unwitting suspect? (Not I, of course. But I won’t judge you.)
Sex as revenge, as conquest, is strangely devoid of sensuality and pleasure. The deed is the point. And so, part of the message of the film, that the utter emptiness of this existence is ultimately what renders the playboy so pathetic. Jacob is defeated via, ironically, his own heartless tactics. When Hannah’s square boyfriend Richard (Josh Groban) fails to propose, she ends up in Jacob’s deluxe bachelor pad. Hannah, being both adorable and sincere, foils his plans and they end up spending a night of genuine connection, which leads to them actually falling for one another.
At the same time, in spite of his newfound success as a smoothie, Cal realizes that he’s still in love with Emily. To its credit, the movie never goes the usual route of portraying Emily as a heartless bitch. She’s just human and, thus, prone to boredom, temptation, and confusion. I wish she were more fully written, but in the hands of the luminous and talented Julianne Moore, Emily is both sympathetic and convincing. (Moore is 50, by the way, and grows even more gorgeous with each passing year). There’s a lovely and subtly touching scene in which Cal, unwilling to let another man tend the family lawn, stops by to maintain it and ends up eavesdropping on Emily as she calls him with a fake home-maintenance problem. Longing to hear his wife’s voice just as much, he plays along.
The movie is funnier and better when it concentrates on all those little devious tricks we play to safeguard our hearts while simultaneously trying to lure the object of our affections. In my opinion, it is nearly derailed by two scenes of that obligatory Hollywood category, when characters pour out their hearts in front of an all too indulgent crowd. But the audience kept laughing, even as I cringed.
The cast is terrific, although I wish Marisa Tomei’s role weren’t so humiliating and that Kevin Bacon and Ryan Gosling had been given more to do. Don’t get me wrong, Gosling is still terrific and his torso is magnificent and beautifully lit. But, he is one of the best actors of his generation and I still can’t help but feel that he was shortchanged. And I admit that I was a little nervous that he’d be arrested for statutory rape, since the lovely and charming Emma Stone does not look a day over sixteen. As the 13 year-old son, Robbie, Johan Bobo is winning, but there is no way a teenage boy would not be furious with his mother for cheating on his father. Indeed, the movie fails at portraying normal children’s reactions at the destruction of their parents’ marriage. (For an honest and genuinely moving depiction of that, look to last year’s “The Kids Are Alright”.)
“Crazy, Stupid Love” is too long by a good 15 minutes and there is a plot twist that does not feel entirely earned, but it is still worth plunking down some cash to watch it with an audience.