Film Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s Crazy, Stupid, Love arrived at a highly specific point in time. The 2011 film premiered right as its star, Steve Carell, began to transition to more dramatic film roles. Additionally, his co-star, Ryan Gosling, was reaching his first career apex. Gosling starred in three films in 2011 (The Ides of March, Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive), cementing his status as one of the most popular actors in the biz.

Considering these dynamics, Crazy, Stupid, Love can be considered an effective career vehicle for both men. Outside of this, it’s difficult to comment on the value of Crazy, Stupid, Love. I first saw the movie back in 2011. I saw it again on the plane just a few days ago. In both cases I enjoyed much of what I saw; it is well-acted, genuinely funny and, at times, touching.

Still, Crazy, Stupid, Love is laughably out-of-step with both the world of 2018 and 2011. The film’s main thematic preoccupation is the concept of the “soulmate” and how this concept should order one’s romantic and sexual life. The film puts forth a puritanical vision of romance and partnership in working from this theme, which undercuts the potential power and complexity of its story. In the world of Crazy, Stupid, Love, everything boils down to the “soulmate,” and it waxes on this dubious idea in a way that can only be described as soul-crushing.

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In the film Steve Carell plays Cal Weaver, a boring, sad lump of a man. Cal is the type of guy whose idea of spontaneity or excitement would be choosing a new item off the Applebees’ “Two for One” menu or deciding to go to bed at 10 p.m. rather than 9.  His life consists of his wife of 25 years, Emily (Julianne Moore), his two children, an anonymous office job and engaging in – scratch that – obsessing about the granular details of suburban lawn work.

As the film begins, Cal is told by Emily that she wants a divorce. Emily has become bored and believes that her marriage is – by almost any metric – dead in the water. “I don’t know when you and I stopped being us,” she says painfully, revealing that she also slept with a co-worker named David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon) before asking Cal to end their marriage. Cal has no real answer to this statement. He rolls over like a submissive puppy, agrees to quickly sign divorce papers and finally moves out of their shared home.

Cal begins to spend an inordinate amount of time at a local bar where he encounters Gosling’s suave (slimy?), debonair (disturbing?) Jacob, a pickup artist who spends every night at the same bar taking home women. One night, after witnessing Cal pathetically complain about his divorce and being a “cuckhold,” Jacob decides to take the sad sack under his wing. He helps Cal improve his appearance, lambasting him for his “Supercuts” hairdo and over-sized outfits. He also coaches Cal on conversing with women, dropping “pearls of wisdom” like how men should always insist on ordering ladies drinks (even if they refuse) and that woman should be made to do all the heavy lifting conversationally.

Under Jacob’s tutelage, Cal makes headway in going home with a series of ladies (including one played by Marisa Tomei, in what amounts to little more than a cameo) in a desperate attempt to move on with his life. However, a series of events soon complicate matters. Cal finds that he can’t stop pining for Emily; his 13-year-old son, Robbie, develops unrequited feelings for the family babysitter; and Jacob, despite being the ultimate womanizer, finds himself infatuated with Emma Stone’s Hannah, a young, aspiring lawyer. These developments force Cal to grapple with what he wants romantically and the overall viability of concepts such as true love and soulmates.

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On a visual and aesthetic level, Crazy, Stupid, Love has isolated moments that imaginatively convey information. The opening scene, for instance, is just such a moment. In a series of shots, the film shows different couples’ feet under their respective tables. In each case, the couples are wearing elegant footwear and even playing footsie with one another. Such a progression of images establishes a striking contrast when the film moves to underneath Emily and Cal’s table. Their feet are shown to be doing anything but playing footsie. Cal is also wearing a horrifying pair of tennis shoes, signifying how lazy and complacent he has become in his marriage.

Conversely, there is so much that is uncapitalized in Crazy, Stupid, Love, which is one of the most blase and anonymous productions I have seen in quite some time. The film was shot in California, but it could be set in Anytown, U.S.A, as it does nothing to establish a sense of place. The filmmakers also fail to tie the location to the film’s themes. This profound laziness might be permissible if Crazy, Stupid, Love didn’t rely so heavily on key locations. For example, Jacob and Cal only go to one bar over the entirety of the story. Are we to really believe that the bar is just so good that it prohibits them from branching out? Or should the bar location carry a thematic weight that validates its continuous presence? You tell me.

This is somewhat of a moot point. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s films are more about actors than aesthetics, and Crazy, Stupid, Love is no exception. Moore and Bacon are characteristically excellent in their small roles. Jonah Bobo, who plays Cal’s son Robbie, and Analeigh Tipton, who plays his babysitter and object of affection, are effective enough for inexperienced actors. Gosling, who up until this point had largely appeared in gritty indies such as The Believer, Half Nelson and Blue Valentine turns in a shiny, breezy and funny performance, using his innate likability and roided-up body to full effect. He even nearly succeeds in making one overlook how badly he is served by the script, which does little to ameliorate or explain the character’s borderline misogynistic attitudes. It probably helps that he has an effortless chemistry with Emma Stone, who is able to handle her non-demanding part with levity and ease.

In the lead role, Carell is in his absolute element, playing a part that is comedic but also tinged with deep melancholy. His excellent work throughout Crazy, Stupid, Love creates a fully believable portrait of a man who has gone through life without thinking critically and who must now begrudgingly become a more active participant in his own experience. It’s an intriguing part, yet the script but Dan Fogelman continually fails him, saddling the poor bastard with tin-eared speeches, bizarro grand gestures and so much Hollywood fluff and fantasy that it almost makes Carell’s earlier bomb, Evan Almighty, look like a plausible, nuanced docudrama.

The amount of artifice imbued in Cal’s journey is not an isolated incident. The filmmakers initially establish a fruitful cinematic canvas, one perfectly suited to exploring the timeless nature of love at a very specific point in time. And yet, the approach they take is one of immense simplicity and backwardness, sacrificing the complex inter-workings of a multi-decade marriage, casual dating, and even proper phone etiquette at the altar of “the soulmate.” This eye-rolling motif – habitually relied upon in Crazy, Stupid, Love – negates its ability to speak to the concept of “love” and generates many scenes that can only be described as “crazy” and “stupid.”

Crazy, Stupid, Love both sanctions all behavior done in the name of the soulmate and seems to insinuate that only through the soulmate can one find redemption. One wishes that the film would have taken a more esoteric approach. It could have characterized Gosling’s character as finding redemption not in the arms of a soulmate but through experiencing real consequences for his lecherous actions. Robbie’s arc could have highlighted the importance of learning about boundaries – and of modulating one’s desires based on whether they are reciprocated – as part of the growing-up process. Finally, Cal’s journey involves him eventually starting to try to win Emily back due to the belief that if someone is your soulmate you can never, ever, EVER give up. Crazy, Stupid, Love fails to critique this mindset entirely, never broaching the painful truth that even if two people love each other it doesn’t mean they should be together. Sometimes love just isn’t enough, and just because you call someone your soulmate doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Devoid of this ambition, Crazy, Stupid, Love is left with little more a trifle of a story and a handful of enjoyable performances. Its failure to critique its characters’ efforts to obtain soulmates, and its myopic advancement of marriage and monogamy as basically the only path to salvation, give the film a dated, disposable feel. They strip away much of the film’s lasting worth, aside from its encapsulation of a transitory period in the lives of its two stars.

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