Friday, August 5, 2011

Benefit of the Doubt -- Reflections on "Crazy, Stupid, Love." (2011)

"You know I'm a better actor than you, right?"
So far, this has been a very bad year for comedies, especially of the romantic variety. So far, we've had No Strings Attached, Just Go With It, The Dilemma, and Hall Pass. All of these movies are poor examples of the romantic genre, with contrived gimmicks taking the place of quality stories involving interesting, relatable characters.

Maybe it's because of the quality of this year's company, but Crazy, Stupid, Love is more along the lines of what a romantic comedy should be. It ditches the clever ideas for a more human story about people struggling with the issues and consequences of love, desire, and fidelity in their everyday lives. Instead of giving its characters snarky, sarcastic dialogue, it has them speak more like you and me. There's a very real feeling to this movie, and the result is a film that is not only funny, but relevant.

Basics: Cal (Steve Carell) discovers that his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), wants a divorce because she is having an affair with a man from work (Kevin Bacon). His life is thrown into shambles, so he tries to pick up the pieces when he meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a ladies' man who takes it upon himself to transform Cal into a self-confident player. Meanwhile, Jacob meets a girl named Hannah (Emma Stone) who seems to challenge him more than the typical girls he meets in bars. There's also a subplot involving Cal and Emily's son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who is in love with the babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton).

Ryan Gosling is "Da Man!": Name a better actor working today. Leonardo DiCaprio? Johnny Depp? Brad Pitt? Gosling proved in Blue Valentine that he had serious acting chops, but his work in offbeat comedy, like Lars and the Real Girl, and his turn as romantic lead in The Notebook reveal his depth as an actor. With Crazy, Stupid, Love, Gosling shows impeccable comedic timing and an ability to bring remarkable charisma to the table. His character, Jacob, is the ultimate player, and not once do you doubt Gosling as this guy. But he doesn't play Jacob as smarmy or insensitive. Instead, he shows us this character is amused by his conquests, but ultimately unfulfilled and wanting something more. With the way Hollywood is pushing Ryan Reynolds to be the next star, it would seem they are backing the wrong horse. Gosling is the real deal -- a major talent who can play any type of role.

Sports Analogy Forthcoming: For as well-written and interesting as Crazy, Stupid, Love is for most of its runtime, it is not without its faults. One of the biggest faults it has is in not making Steve Carell's character, Cal, more consistently interesting. After Cal meets Jacob, Jacob pretty much steals the show and no matter how good Carell is as Cal, he simply can't keep up. Yet, because of Carell's star power, we get a number of scenes with him while Gosling is on the sidelines, seemingly involved in a much more interesting story with Emma Stone's character. It feels a bit like a basketball team, where Carell gets the lion's share of the minutes because he's the old reliable veteran, even though the team has a young buck in Gosling who takes the team to new heights when he's on the floor, but keeps getting held back by the coach. This is not a knock on Carell, or his performance, which is functional and appropriate for the role he is playing.

Broken Record Time:  I've been saying this a lot lately in my reviews, but I really feel like Crazy, Stupid, Love could have been an even better movie than it is. This is partially because of the way it underuses Gosling and Stone's terrific subplot, but mostly it's due to an ending that seemed to come out of a sitcom playbook. I found myself rolling my eyes during the film's last 20 minutes, which seemed to match the rest of the film's intelligence with its blatant stupidity. This left me wondering where the movie went off the tracks, because it really could have been something special if it hadn't ended in the most nauseating -- and predictable -- way possible.

Without hesitation, I recommend Crazy, Stupid, Love as a wonderful date movie. It has a couple stellar performances, and a -- mostly -- smart script. I may be giving it the benefit of the doubt in light of the absolutely wretched romantic comedies we've already been exposed to this year, but it is most deserving of that benefit.

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