So, I avoided Crazy, Stupid, Love when it was in theatres. The trailers made it look like a conventional romantic comedy, albeit with a multigenerational spin. It concentrated on the wackiness of newly separated dad Cal (Steve Carrell) learning how to pick up women from young lothario Jacob (Ryan Gosling), along with a clip of one of Jacob’s conquests, Hannah (Emma Stone) remarking that his body is so perfect he looks Photoshopped. Meh, I thought; I like the people in the cast but it doesn’t look that good.
I wish I could slap the marketing departments of film studios the way that Jacob slaps Cal in this movie, because once again they have failed to adequately explain to adults what their movie is. I suppose they thought they would take the safe route and try to haul in the usual romcom crowd. I’m smiling, trying to imagine teenage couples and single women at this film, because it’s not for them: it’s for me. And not in a pandering, hey-buddy-everything’s-gonna-be-OK kind of way. This film is for and about men. That alone makes it an unusual romantic comedy, and worth watching.
More unusual still is the ratio of truth in the script. In the best conventional romcoms that I can think of – films like Four Weddings and a Funeral – the script usually consists of a pile of endearing set pieces held together with just enough truth, just enough recognizable human emotions or experiences to make us forgive its many sins. Crazy, Stupid, Love inverts the formula: it is at least 75% truth, and while the set pieces and bullshit are definitely there, we put up with them as a necessary evil and forget them as soon as they pass. Richard Gere isn’t showing up to carry anyone out of a factory, or call them down from a limousine. Crazy, Stupid, Love is the Magnolia of romantic comedies, and that is not just me being glib: the similarities are sometimes disturbing.
Spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, please do before you read on. Seriously, you’ll be sorry if you don’t.
Still here? OK. This film hit me where I live. As I said above, it is primarily concerned with men and the male perspective on relationships. We have Cal, informed by his wife that she wants a divorce, that she has been unfaithful, causing him to enter a kind of fugue state that is broken by Jacob. Jacob is a womanizer, tired of overhearing Cal’s bitter mutterings about Dave (Kevin Bacon), who slept with his wife. He offers to mentor Cal to get his manhood back, which to Jacob means dressing in expensive clothes and following a formula for seduction that would make Frank T.J. Mackey lick his lips.
Meanwhile, Cal’s son Robbie is in love with his babysitter, who is 17 and 4 years Robbie’s senior. She accidentally catches Robbie masturbating in an early scene, leading to a series of increasingly bold professions of his love despite her protestations. What Robbie doesn’t know is that she is in love with Cal, who is too caught up in his own worries to realize that a teenager wants to sleep with him. As Cal learns the ways of seduction, Jacob finds himself drawn in by the fierce and funny Hannah, and it is a great testament to the abilities of these two actors that I did not break my laptop over my knee during their set piece, where they recreate a moment from Dirty Dancing.
The film has a few such moments, acknowledging or paying homage to the titans of romcoms past, but for every one of those moments there are another five where the film deliberately refuses to take the predictable route. After a particularly uncomfortable scene, it starts to rain on Cal as he stands in the street. His response is to look up and say “what a cliché.” They may do dumb things sometimes, but this film is full of smart people working with a very smart script. As in Magnolia, the characters turn out to be more closely related than it first appears, and the climax of the film is one that won’t please everybody. The way the camera moves, the way the characters talk, and the role of music in the film is reminiscent of Magnolia as well, to say nothing of Julianne Moore’s presence.
Like Cal, I am divorced from a woman I met when very young, and I worry about how to talk to my son about relationships as he gets older; I worry about how to make sure he inherits my virtues more than my flaws and mistakes. Like Jacob, I have been a seducer (though not nearly as appealing, I’m sure), and I have yearned for and found a deeper connection. Like Robbie, I have been disappointed by unrequited love and elated by the potential of the future. Like Dave, I’ve been the other man. If women go to romcoms to fulfill their generally unrealized fantasies of romance and spontanaeity, men may find themselves appreciating what Crazy, Stupid, Love has to say about redemption and maturity in a film landscape that offers them little of either.
And while Magnolia is a masterful mixture of daddy issues and synchronicity and Biblical judgement, Crazy, Stupid, Love is like a new testament. It’s far from perfect and you wouldn’t want to take it literally (or at all), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be inspiring.