In a summer littered with big-budget sequels, second-tier superheroes, and the usual animated fare, it is a bit of a shock to find a studio comedy aimed at adults. Crazy, Stupid, Love. has an even bigger surprise going for it. It’s really good.
The context for this surprise includes the recent resurgence of the R-rated comedy. These raunchy films have cleared more than a billion dollars worldwide, making them the trend du jour that guarantees at least two years worth of knockoffs. Spearheaded by The Hangover and its sequel, the comedies are filled with scatological and sexual humor, pervasive bad language, and usually a few topless actresses scattered around for good measure. Other characteristics tend to be sloppy plotting, a handful of SNL-skit-like set pieces that can’t be shown on network TV, and an almost complete lack of honest characterization. The films are often very funny. The best of them, like Bridesmaids, manage both to pander to generic conventions and, for brief moments, transcend them. But none of them is for adults. These movies are for teenagers and the teenager who lurks in most grown-ups.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. could have easily been one of these low-brow comedies. The set-up of a promiscuous ladies’ man becoming the wingman to a newly single sad sack could easily have devolved into sex and diarrhea jokes. Instead, it shoots for much higher ground, exploring the ways that well-drawn characters look at love. It is refreshing to see a movie where sex is integral to the plot, but not framed by voyeurism or juvenile ignorance.
The movie opens with Cal and Emily Weaver (Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore) out to dinner. It is clear they’ve eaten together like this hundreds of times: Cal asks Emily what she wants, meaning for dessert, and gets a startling response. She wants a divorce. The camera stays focused on Cal’s face during the ride home, as he gazes wordlessly into a near distance, a look that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Cal has no idea what to do with his newfound freedom; he’s not even sure he wants it. Enter Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who frequents the same bar and goes home with a different girl every night. In one of the many plot points that could feel contrived, but somehow doesn’t, Jacob takes on Cal as a project, à la Cyrano de Bergerac or, more recently, Will Smith’s character in Hitch. Specifically, Jacob remakes Cal into an older image of his player self.
As he’s rediscovering how to live in the world, Cal is watching his 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) sort out some relationship issues of his own. He’s in love with his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who is in turn in love with Cal. As it turns out, Jacob isn’t as immune to commitment as he thought, either, as he becomes interested in Hannah (Emma Stone). All this makes for an intricate story that weaves together very different individuals’ experiences in satisfying and, in at least two instances, completely unexpected ways.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. operates with the understanding that the love felt between two 40somethings after decades of marriage is very unlike what a kid feels for his babysitter or what she feels for her employer, not to mention whatever it is that attractive young singles stumble into on their way to self-definitions. The unifying theme is that love is equally raw and potentially frightening for all of them. The title may call it crazy and stupid, but the film delves into how love makes us, in equal parts, angry and sad, nervous and intoxicated.
That unifying theme makes Crazy, Stupid, Love. a little like Love, Actually, though it has a narrower focus on a smaller cast. That movie was also a comedy for adults, viewers with experience and interests beyond movies, viewers who appreciated complicated relationships and a gradually unfolding set of stories. With any luck, Crazy, Stupid, Love. will find viewers like that.