In the first scene of Crazy, Stupid, Love, Emily (Julianne Moore) tells Cal (Steve Carell), her high school sweetheart and husband of twenty-plus years, that she wants a divorce. She goes on to mention that she had an affair with a coworker named Dave Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), at which point Cal tells her that he's heard enough. (He's not kidding: by the time Cal makes it to the bar that night, the name "Dave Lindhagen" will have become a kind of negative mantra for him.) But Emily can't stop talking. "I think I'm having a midlife crisis," she confesses a couple of scenes later, when the now-estranged couple meet again. "Can women even have midlife crises? In the movies, it's always men."
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa were last seen as the auteurs of I Love You Phillip Morris, one of the smartest comedies of recent years. Crazy, Stupid, Love isn't nearly as groundbreaking, but its love-positive dramedy is notably big-hearted and enlivened by the work of a few good actors.
So Moore recedes, popping up mostly as a foil to Cal's effort to Regain His Manhood via new clothes and anonymous sex. He takes tutoring in both fields from Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a hard-bodied, harder hearted player who is moved to Change His Ways when he falls for Hannah (Emma Stone), a stunning lady neurotic/law student whose Focus On Career has left her in lack of a satisfying romantic life. In a less-successfully integrated story thread, Cal's thirteen-year-old son nurses an obsessive crush on his seventeen-year-old babysitter, who in turn only has eyes for 40-something Cal — a roundelay whose bawdy sentimentality feels airlifted from a John Hughes movie.
Carell and Gosling, each willing to take their characters to the point of caricature in order to find the truth in them, have a nicely barbed chemistry together, never more convincing than in the scene, indicative of Crazy's treatment of cinematic tropes, in which they establish their pupil-mentor relationship. Strangers negotiating in a bar, they use gangster-film lingo to cement a bond whose first destination is necessarily a shopping montage.
Carell's film choices as far back as The 40 Year-Old Virgin suggest a tendency toward middle-aged, every-nerd romantic leads — the unlikely love interest who spends an entire film proving his charms — but here he's given a realistically complicated person to play. As Gosling's character puts it, he has "kind eyes and a good head of hair," both of which go a long way toward boosting the credibility of a character who bounces between oblivious dad, hopeless romantic and calculating lothario. In contrast to Carell's contrived "transformation" into romantic hero, Gosling is treated like an ingenue, with the directors building an entire scene around the awesome spectacle of his rock-hard midsection, giving his ass and hulking muscles their own key light in a sex scene in which his partner is mostly in shadow.
Dan Fogelman's script is snappy, if too proudly referential. The film is more interesting in its second half: The dialogue seems looser and less bound to punch line. Characters who previously talked over one another, too deep in their own heads to actually have an exchange, slow down and start to listen. Shooting on grainy, high-speed film stock with an often hand-held camera, working with a suite of actors who are game to both play light and silly and dig deep, Ficarra and Requa lend a naturalism to highly contrived, patently absurd situations.
Spoiler alert: there are two plot twists, neither of which seem particularly necessary, but I have to admit that I saw neither coming. That's the thing about movie clichès: as eager as filmmakers seem to be to show that they know the jig is up, sometimes that shit just works.