In their directorial debut, I Love Phillip Morris, longtime screenwriting tandem Glenn Ficarra and John Requa walked a fine, treacherous line between shock humor and sentimental romanticism with varying levels of success. In their follow-up, Crazy, Stupid, Love., the edgy laughs are considerably toned down (perhaps the result of ceding screenwriting duties to Dan Fogelman), and it’s the romanticism that dominates, as unabashed talk of “soulmates” proliferates shamelessly throughout, with nary a hint of irony. Thus despite the directors’ obvious feel for comic situations (particularly those that veer toward the awkward or uncomfortable), their ability to hit on sharply observed bits of male truth (the film is considerably less insightful about/interested in women) and the spot-on lead performance of Steve Carell, Crazy, Stupid, Love. can’t help but register as utterly conventional in the worst sense of the term; that is, it relies on the conventions of the genre to reinforce conventional models of living.
Ficarra and Requa’s film belongs to that occasionally revived tradition that had its fullest flourishing in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s and which Stanley Cavell famously termed the “comedy of remarriage.” At its glorious best (The Awful Truth), the films belonging to this subgenre necessitated the estranged couple rethinking the very terms and underlying assumptions of their relationships before reuniting in a pairing based, we can only assume, on a fresh, more enlightened foundation. (“If I were different, maybe things could be the same…only different,” Irene Dunne famously tells Cary Grant in Leo McCarey’s film.) Crazy, Stupid, Love., by contrast, posits that there was nothing inherently wrong with its central relationship to start out with, just a round of midlife crisis on the woman’s part.
The relationship in question comes crumbling down in the film’s opening minutes when Emily (Julianne Moore) tells her husband, Cal (Carell), that she’s had an affair with a co-worker and that she wants a divorce, a set of circumstances that sends Carell’s mild-mannered schlub down the route of self-pitying whining at a trendy bar which he begins to frequent. Desperately out of place in his loose-fitting jeans and New Balance sneakers, Cal repeatedly annoys the customers with, in some of the film’s most humorous moments, unsolicited rants about his state of “cuckoldry.” Taking pity on the loser, the bar’s local lothario, the almost parodically smooth Jacob (Ryan Gosling), makes Cal his project, smartening up his wardrobe and teaching him how to approach women. Before long, Cal’s almost as successful with the ladies as his mentor.
Naturally, however, no one could be happy with meaningless sex, at least not in this film’s world, so it’s not long before we understand that Cal still wants nothing more than to reunite with his ex and that Jacob, for all his obvious sleaziness, is just an unhappy rich kid trying to buy and fuck away his loneliness. In the case of the latter character, all it takes is the love of a good woman, in this instance neophyte attorney Hannah (Emma Stone), with whom Jacob feels such an instant connection that the first night together they end up talking instead of screwing! While Carell’s characterization is richly textured—by turns vulnerable, charming, and surprisingly bitter—and Stone is allowed to register a certain level of credible uncertainty about what she wants in life, Gosling is left with very little to do. In the first half of the film, he’s called on to play an obnoxious, if irresistible, cad. In the second act, he’s the dull, steadfast monogamist.
This schizophrenic conception of Gosling’s character is indicative of the film’s largely dichotomous view of romantic relationships. In the film’s world (at least as it regards its male characters; Emily’s casual dating of a co-worker represents something of an alternative), it’s either unsatisfying womanizing or the all-consuming love for one’s “soulmate.” There’s never any suggestion, for example, that a non-monogamous sexual relationship might be a genuine source of pleasure to both parties. Still, just when it seems easy enough to dismiss the film as a conventional-minded romance, Ficarra and Requa dial up a scene of such precision and insight that they nearly win the viewer back. (I’m thinking less here of the film’s obvious set pieces, such as a domestic get-together in which the entire cast, beset by misassumptions about the romantic geometry at play, descend on Emily’s house for what turns into a backyard brawl, than quieter scenes like a late bar-set attempt to come to an understanding between now-estranged pals Cal and Jacob.) But in the end, for all the film’s momentary successes, it can’t help but hue to platitudes about true love, and more damningly, rather than make its central couple consider any sort of underlying problems or assumptions that caused their initial rupture, it chalks the whole thing up to little more than a momentary lapse of judgment and, with the foundations not only not shaken, but not even stirred, the path is cleared for the inevitable—and unproblematic—reconstitution of the central couple.