Sunday, August 7, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (dir. Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)

I don't typically nitpick such minor, superficial issues, but let's start with the title Crazy, Stupid, Love. I am not entirely whether or not to use two periods at the end of that sentence, or merely one, because the title does, in fact, include a period at the end (and two commas, which is another grammatical nightmare altogether). Why? Who's to say. It's cute and catchy I guess. But it's also totally phony, contrived, and meaningless. Much, and here's where we get into the meat of it, like the film itself.

Steve Carrell plays Cal, whose wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), has just told him she wants a divorce. I'll commend directors Glenn Ficarra & John Requa and screenwriter Dan Fogelman for this - they set up the characters and the stakes quickly, and with ease. Back at home, Cal and Emily's kids are under the watchful eye of their babysitter (Analeigh Tipton), on whom their son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) has a crush. On the other end of town, Jacob (Ryan Gosling), your standard-issue ladies' man/womanizer, is trying to pick up Hannah (Emma Stone), who's about to pass the bar exam and, at first, is having none of it (don't worry, she'll come around - the trailer, and common sense, assures us of this).

Cal takes the impending divorce hard, but plays ball - rather than confront the horrible reality, he retreats, accepts Emily's terms unconditionally, and promptly moves out. Drowning his sorrows at the local bar (which, despite Cal stating he's never been in before, seems to be the only bar in town), he meets Jacob, who for no reason in particular decides to take him under his wing and teach him the tricks of the trade. Cal makes a pretty good player at Jacob's game, but is unsatisfied because his soul mate (and yes, the film uses this term many, many times) is still his wife.

But the film is emotionally dishonest long before the talk of soul mates crops up. I don't ask for realism in my cinema, but this is clearly a film about the world we live in today and is aiming for a certain emotional resonance that, say, Bringing Up Baby wasn't all that concerned with. And yet there are so few instances that portray true human behavior, or even a heightened version of same. For example, Cal meets Jacob after the latter calls him over to his table and instantly launches into a whole speech about how he's going to give Cal a makeover. There are a million ways for these two people to meet (the trailer contains a much more believable one), yet Fogelman went the route that would almost certainly result in Jacob and Cal going home together. And not to try on clothes. Or, you know, maybe.

Then there's the matter of Marisa Tomei, who plays a schoolteacher Cal picks up and promptly forgets about, and who later turns out to be his son's English teacher. But rather than act like a sensible adult who could have conceivably taught children anything for more than a few minutes, Tomei (an actress deserving of so much better) goes absolutely batshit insane when she runs into him again at parent/teacher night.

And then there's the matter of every single scene with Robbie, not a single one of which represents any truth about adolescence. Robbie is completely certain of himself and his place in this world - his parents will get back together, because he really wants them to. The man his mom slept with (a suitably, but not excessively, sleazy Kevin Bacon) must be a horrible person, because he slept with his mom (though thankfully, the film does put some of the onus on Emily for this). Robbie even tells him so, something 13-year-olds do all the time, I'm sure. Robbie knows he will someday be with his 17-year-old babysitter (he's 13), it's just a matter of changing her mind. At the end of the film, he vows to never give up in this pursuit, in spite of the fact that she has told him to shove it a half-dozen times. This conflict is introduced by him telling her he thinks about her while masturbating. In the version of this story that bears any relationship with reality, this is called stalking, and Robbie would have a good talking-to, if not several sessions of therapy. In the film, this is the sweetest thing in the world and she gives him some naked photos of herself to tide him over.

Oh yeah, they go there. And it'd almost be a cool, subversive move if the film didn't present it like they just exchanged promise rings.

I could go on and on, but in all fairness, there is one scene that lands and feels true - Jacob and Hannah eventually get together, and share one of the finer getting-to-know-you montages I've seen. It's nice, it's sweet, and Gosling and Stone lend a lot to make this scene credible. But that's it, man. The rest is truly awful, repugnant stuff, both from a storytelling perspective (a third act "twist" revealing a relationship between a few of the characters is needlessly obscured; a declaration of love given to a crowd there to see something else entirely, which, yes, ends in applause) and a moral one.

If you're onboard with the concept of a soul mate, then hey, more power to you. It's not my bag, but neither are a lot of things people believe in this crazy world of ours. My thing is that it's not terribly cinematic, and it's bad enough that our action movies are overrun by the concept of destiny and fate and being the chosen one and now our romantic comedies are too? Screw that. Give me a movie about two people who just like being together, who function well together as a couple, and are in love (again, may I point to Friends With Benefits). If the film declares at any point that anyone is anyone else's soul mate, then it's totally removed the power of choice, and aren't stories supposed to be about people making choices, not fulfilling predetermined destinies? And maybe this is all a little bit heady for the film, but if the film can't handle this, it shouldn't bring it up. And again, it uses this concept to justify near-sociopathic behavior, which is sort of the great failing of many a romantic comedy.

As for the "comedy" part of that, the film earned two honest laughs from me. The audience seemed to enjoy the rest, but I knew within minutes that this was a bad film, and was never presented with any evidence to the contrary. The Gosling/Stone getting-to-know-you bit comes really late in the film, far too late to affect the outcome or save us from anything. With a cast as strong as this, it's tempting to call Crazy, Stupid, Love. an earnest failure or a missed opportunity, but at no point during the running time did I feel like the film was on the right track. To make a good film from this would require it to be an entirely different film.

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