It's been a dark time for the traditional romantic comedy. Its R-rated kindred have been stealing its thunder, whether introducing the radical concept of personal responsibility (as in Bridesmaids, unequaled among summer blockbusters) or suggesting that strict no-strings sex is the way to go, before retreating to the safety of convention (I call you out, Friends with Strings, No Benefits Attached). So what can a subgenre do to reinvigorate without getting post-converted into 3D?
The answer, according to Crazy, Stupid, Love, is add volume. And reversals.
If 2011 has been the Summer of Fatigue (see: heat, superheroes), it makes sense that this turbulent romantic comedy-drama would toss you about like a theme-park ride with a wall-to-wall complaint-rock soundtrack (except for its occasional house beats, used as signifiers for lovelessness and despair). There are just as many jolts and explosions here as in Captain America (or as I like to call it, "America's own Starship Troopers"), but instead of Nazis, what's exploding is commitment.
Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) have been married for almost 25 years, and fissures are erupting: After confessing an indiscretion, Emily asks for a divorce. So off Cal goes into the Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom of contemporary dating. In the one bar apparently everyone goes to, all open spaces and suspended glass shelving, the alpha male is Jacob (Ryan Gosling). This unapologetic horndog takes pity on Cal and decides to make him over into someone who gets ladies and attention (and has the credit to afford $800-plus bar tabs). Meanwhile, the couple's 13-year-old son is madly in love with his babysitter, who secretly carries a torch for Cal.
As Cal, Carell embodies the film's turbulent plotting: The whiplash shifts in his character — melancholy schlub to inadvertent ladies man to remorseful gardener to reactionary patriarch (and back and forth several times) — resemble the way the movie careens haphazardly through the love lives of its characters. Dan Fogelman's screenplay meanders from tone to tone, but as they did in 2009's I Love You Phillip Morris, directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra care deeply about their lovelorn, sex-starved brood, and that care smoothes over the many choppy transitions while making the characters more appealing. An accomplished composite tracking shot of Carell's successive conquests should be horrifying, but you find yourself wanting this little man to tomcat around a bit. We know he's a decent man because he's the star. And also because he sneaks onto the grounds at night to properly aerate the soil and trim the bushes.
Ryan Gosling puts his charm to interesting use as the archetypal rake with a heart of gold — a guy who isn't bad, just slutty. ("The battle of the sexes is over, and we won," he says. "We won it as soon as women started doing pole dancing for exercise.") As for Moore, she takes what probably read on the page as a misogynist caricature and makes her into a living, troubled woman.
There's more, but you'd need a Venn diagram just to lay out where all this plot sprawls. Just know that the exceptional Emma Stone is stuck in a go-nowhere relationship with Josh Groban; that as her best friend, Dollhouse's Liza Lapira steals some scenes (it's evidently taken Hollywood this long to realize Asian actors can also play the sassy, pragmatic best friend just as well as gays, black people and Eve Arden); and that, as in all romantic comedies, boats may get rocked but everything stabilizes in the long run.
The same goes for the movie, which almost capsizes in a desperate late-film wave of rushed resolutions paced like slamming-doors farce. (The regrettable but apt comparison is a Scooby-Doo finale — except for the jarring use of underage nudity as a plot point, handled the way you'd expect in a very special Three's Company episode.) Still, the film stays afloat on the buoyancy of its cast. Watch for great cameos by Marisa Tomei and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
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