Years after gaining fame for writing the modern subversive holiday classic "Bad Santa," Hollywood has finally made room for John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. Having directed the wry gay comedy "I Love You, Phillip Morris" last year, Requa and Ficarra have brought their unique combination of gleeful vulgarity, classic wit and perceptive characters to the studio system. Unsurprisingly, that arrival comes with some compromises. "Crazy, Stupid, Love." (period intended) unquestionably stands above the market standard for middlebrow comedies, but it repeatedly approaches greatness and stands down, beholden to forces quite possibly beyond the directors' control.
Although Requa and Ficarra have no writing credit this time out (the screenplay was penned by "Cars" writer Dan Fogelman, marking his first foray into live action), the material is certainly familiar from their earlier outings. Just as "Bad Santa" and "Phillip Morris" dismantled conventional notions of suburban domesticity with a ribald sense of play, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." involves a presumably stable family coming apart at the seams. From there, it spins outward with over a half dozen central characters whose mini-stories weave together and break apart, with each developing arc serving a theme about the art of romantic attraction as neat as the period at the end of the movie's title.
It's easy to see what attracted Requa and Ficarra to Fogelman's script. Although ostensibly about sex, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." never indulges in sophomoric gags. The humor, when it creeps into the frame, has a resolutely adult edge. From the first scene, when Cal (Steve Carell) sits blank-faced across the table from his despondent wife (Julianne Moore) moments after she expresses a need to get divorced, it's clear that the directors feel no mounting urge to reach for the first available punchline.
Carell's blank expression in response to his wife's blunt pronouncement speaks volumes about the movie's deadpan appeal. Unlike the playfulness of "Phillip Morris," this is a classy work that blends innuendo with bittersweet character types, each of whom maintains a strong, believable definition. Carrell finds the best outlet for his blue collar pathos since "Dan in Real Life." Ryan Gosling--as the smooth hustler who takes Cal under his wing and teaches him how to nab single women at the neighborhood bar--brings a welcome element of generosity to a typically slimy, one-dimensional archetype.
The younger cast members get a chance to show off previously unseen talents. Analeigh Tipton, as the babysitter for Cal's feisty adolescent son (Jonah Bobo), develops a hilarious crush on Cal with the precise balance of sexual curiosity and shoe-gazing sincerity that makes her a reasonable pick for the cast of Whit Stillman's upcoming feature "Damsels in Distress." Bobo, meanwhile, gets the rare child role that lets him mouth off, and clearly relishes the opportunity. Emma Stone, usually the object of desire in broader comedic outings like "Superbad" and "Easy A," plays a romantically troubled law student whose attraction to Gosling's character put her prude nature to the test (and becomes the single ingredient seemingly disconnected to the rest of the plot, a tricky maneuver that only shows its full definition near the end).
These faces, both familiar and new, make "Crazy, Stupid, Love." entirely engaging and heartfelt while also allowing it to touch on multiple points of view from various stages of life. The free-wheeling structure moves forward with purpose, but lacks focus. The odd thing about the script's darkly comic appeal is that it has a curiously dull edge that teeters on the edge of one comically deranged situation after another before repeatedly playing the safe card. There's an institutional tension here, between giving the audience what it wants and what it least expects: What once would have been considered transgressive now looks like a lot of cable television--flashes of innovation amid routine structures.
This makes "Crazy, Stupid, Love." alternately liberating and mundane. A ludicrous climactic twist brings the entire ensemble into one spot with just enough chaotic inspiration to inject new life into the material. But then the movie regrettably continues for several more scenes, tidying up for an unremarkable ending when it worked better all over the place.
This is the kind of uneven product that emerges when filmmakers whose sensibilities exist outside of commercial norms try to work within the system. (Consider as well David Gordon Green's awkward transition to directing outlandish studio comedies: "Your Highness" was an attempt to make a crude R-rated comedy like nothing else out there, but it was essentially a lark.)
However, while "Crazy, Stupid, Love." falters, it challenges convention enough to make the experience worthwhile: Marisa Tomei, as the middle school instructor Cal beds to get over his divorce, repeatedly shouts "asshole" to his face during a parent-teacher conference, possibly one-upping the infamous Jennifer Aniston "pussy" scene in "Horrible Bosses." Later, when Gosling and Stone go home together and decide they're less interested in a one-night stand than getting to know each other, they relish the opportunity for an actor's showcase. For a brief moment, Hollywood gets real, and even meta: "I am R-rated sexy," Stone tells Gosling, "and I know what happens in the PG-13 version." Maybe the MPAA was playing a cruel joke by giving "Crazy, Stupid, Love." exactly that rating, but even more likely, it's exactly what the studio wanted. At any rate, many audiences can relate to Stone's prediction, and "Crazy, Stupid, Love." lazily confirms it.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Marketed as an adult romantic comedy with a cast of popular stars, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." could do solid business as summer counter-programming during its first weekend. But reviews will be mixed and some of the bigger blockbuster fare will likely bury its long-term prospects. It opens nationwide on Friday.