I like marriage.
I do. At least in theory. I am unmarried, myself. But my parents are married. My friends are married. It seems like a good deal.
So why is it that more and more, I find myself rooting against marriages when I watch them on film? In real life, whether divorce re-invigorates miserable people is situational. As movies go, for better or worse, it usually frees them. I’m not sure why. Perhaps writers overdo the marital suffering so the revival seems more dramatic, not realizing it buries the romance for good. That is certainly the case with Crazy, Stupid, Love.
I have a simple rule about the success of an onscreen romance. A good one feels like a movie is conspiring to keep the couple apart. A bad one feels like the movie is shoving them together against the movie’s will. Crazy, Stupid, Love shoves like a school lunch line on chocolate milk Friday. The marriage of Steve Carell and Julianne Moore is cemetery dead, probably in a way that didn’t play to the writers on the page. The worst marriages are those that don’t just die but drown the two people with them.
Their separation sets in motion the best (and luckily, longest) part of the film – the My Fair Lady transformation plot between the serial ladies man (Ryan Gosling) and Carell, a henpecked father of two decked out in baggy jeans and New Balance sneakers. In My Fair Lady, professor Henry Higgins tries to turn Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady. Gosling’s challenge is to turn Carell into an improper man.
Freed of marriage, this section crackles with life. The men have chemistry, each has a handle on the character’s (admittedly one-dimensional) tics and tacs. As Carell learns the pickup moves with predictable speed bumps, the story has enough momentum to carry things. Why does it retreat into a re-marriage comedy, when no one wants Carell to sink back into that lifelong of despair? The film charges hard for the comfortable landing, with a schmaltzy final speech that makes you want to burn a wedding dress.
There is some attempt to make it an ensemble comedy, the type that requires you to draw arrows Glenn Beck-style between pictures of the characters. An office mate (Kevin Bacon) has a thing for Moore. The mouthy son (Jonah Bobo) has a thing for the babysitter (Analeigh Tipton). The babysitter has a thing for Carell, who loves and leaves his son’s English teacher (Marisa Tomei). Emma Stone is in there, too, somehow and somewhere. She’s a young lawyer who hangs out with her lawyer friends and lawyer beau. If you want to know how far off some of Crazy, Stupid Love is from reality, the lawyers wear tailored suits everywhere they go. In reality, young lawyers have already surrendered to baggy jeans and New Balance sneakers, too.
It’s hard to judge comedies anymore. The standard has slumped so far. So a film like Crazy, Stupid Love can be fairly funny, with more character development than its competition, but still feel shallow. It’s certainly better than a lot of Steve Carell’s recent summertime mass-audience comedies, but is it good or just better? You want to pat it on the head for making a little headway. Yet you don’t want to encourage it too much, either, lest you wind up with too many more.