'Crazy, Stupid, Love.': Phony, Slick, Lifeless.
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Watching "Crazy, Stupid, Love." -- the new film from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa -- is remarkably like looking over the shoulder of someone painstakingly, carefully, diligently carving every line and filigree and bit of crosshatching into the engraving plate for a three-dollar bill. The workmanship and effort are evident in every straining moment, but the end result is so completely phony as to be without value. Cal (Steve Carell) is a sad sack of a slumped white-collar worker. As we pan up his ensemble on the obligatory -- not traditional, but obligatory -- date night he shares with life-long love Emily (Julianne Moore), we start at his shabby sneakers and end at his cheap, clunky haircut. Cal and Emily make small talk, until Emily jumps to big talk: "I want a divorce."
This is not a bad kernel for a film, and not a bad idea to explore at all. It's, rather, how Ficarra and Requa, working from the screenplay by Dan Fogelman -- who has previously given us such nuanced discussions of life in the modern real world as "Bolt," "Tangled" and "Cars" -- don't ever get close to a real moment. Instead, they rely on a series of wish-fulfillment fantasies papered over plot holes, and insincere speeches between moments of ridiculously delayed information being brought to light for maximum effect for the purpose of the revelation designed to make idiots gasp.
Lonely, lost and on-the-ropes, Cal starts wasting away in a bar, where alpha male Jacob (Ryan Gosling, so loose and funny you wish he could just slip next door into a better movie) decides to instruct Cal in the art of seduction in the name of "reclaiming his manhood." Then the movie jumps to a makeover-shopping montage we've all seen a million times before. Before Jacob finds him, Cal is given to sitting alone at the bar, saying things like, "I ... am a cuckold," and digressing how that's not one you hear a lot these days. After, it's pickup tricks out of "The Game" and better outfits, even as Jacob, master gamesman, meets Hannah (Emma Stone), the one girl he can't play.
There are other plots here: Cal's 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) has an unrequited and stalk-y crush on 17-year-old baby sitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who has a crush on Cal, and so love's games do rack and ruin every hopeful heart. But "Crazy, Stupid, Love." is full of false moments. When a distraught Cal rolls out of a moving car just to get away from his wife, an incredibly important piece of information is relayed to the audience even though it would have logically figured in the scenes and story long before that fake reveal. Screenwriter Fogelman is also fond of big showy speeches, especially in circumstance where any real person would be silent and not speak. There's no sign of divorce lawyers, no sign of marriage counseling, minimal discussion of visitation rights as per the children -- because this film isn't interested in what divorce does to people. It's interested in what divorce can do for a sentimental, star-studded project that's sold to any grown-up sick of a summer of action films and talking animals.
The shine of skill coming off the actors -- not just Carell, Moore, Stone and Gosling, either, as ex-"America's Next Top Model" contestant Tipton is certainly talented enough and Kevin Bacon does an underplayed supporting part relatively well -- briefly takes your mind off the simplicity and shabby mechanics of the script. And in some cases, the actors wring a few real emotions out of the dialogue, like when Moore calls Carell to ask him to talk her through restarting the water heater in what was their home -- even though she's nowhere near it, pretending to be following instructions diligently with her eyes brimming with sadness -- proves that, in some cases, you can turn lead into gold.
But there's just too much lead here, and the characters do not talk, or act, like people. "I don't know when you and I stopped being us," Carell laments, not long after a "funny joke" that is a) not funny and b) stolen from Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up." Pushed as a grown-up comedy about love and life's absurdity, this movie feels more like a dare: How much clumsiness and phoniness are you willing to endure in the name of seeing a little charisma and personality on the big screen? With its big speeches and bigger contrivances, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." is "Transformers 3" for chardonnay drinkers with mortgages and minivans, a star-studded lump of fantasy and falsehood.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.