Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review: "Crazy, Stupid, Love" fails on every level, despite the cast's valiant efforts

Film Rating: F+

I can think of few other films that have ever tested my patience as much as Crazy Stupid Love.  It takes many of the worst romantic comedy cliches and aggravates them, relies on ridiculous contrivances rather than honest pathos, contains one of the most annoying cinematic characters this side of Jar-Jar Binks, and has no use for any sense of narrative logic or thematic cohesion.  It is, simply put, one of the worst films I have ever seen, and I have never so strongly desired to get up and storm out of the theatre in a huff.

Read more after the jump...

The plot, such as it is, consists of several vaguely connected story-lines, some less insulting to our intelligence and humanity than others.  At the center of things is Cal Weaver, played by the wonderful Steve Carell.  In the film’s first scene, Cal’s wife Emily (Julianne Moore) demands a divorce, sending Cal into a pit of heartache and depression.  While wallowing in his sorrows at a local bar, Cal meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a smooth-talking womanizer who decides to help Cal become more attractive and successful with the ladies.  Meanwhile, the film also follows Cal’s strange stalker of a son as he pines romantically for his babysitter, and the babysitter herself as she pines for Cal, twenty-six years her senior.  Creepy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

But we’ll get to the son and the babysitter in due time.  Ignoring the mess of subplots, all the terrible, sitcom-esque plot contrivances, and forced attempts at zany humor, Crazy Stupid Love is really the story of how Cal recovers from his divorce, and this is where the film most prominently drops the ball.  Cal wants his wife back, and the rough arc of the picture is that he needs to find himself as a ‘man’ and become more ‘confident’ to win her back.  The problem is that we never gain an understanding of why he should want this horrible woman back, nor are we given any reason to believe that he was at fault in their break-up. 

Because the film literally opens with Cal’s divorce, we never see how he and Emily operate as a couple.  Emily tells us that Cal has become dispassionate and dull, but Cal’s actions indicate that he is a loving father and husband.  This crucial mistake dooms the movie from the outset - if we don’t see what their relationship actually was, then Emily appears to be little more than a heartless villain.  She has an affair, dumps her husband - thus tearing apart her family - and later becomes indignant when she learns that her husband slept with another woman months after they are divorced!  Her actions might be understandable if we saw the reason why she needed a divorce, but without any knowledge of the relationship, her character is simply one-dimensional, and we are left baffled as to why Cal would want her back after suffering such a betrayal.  Yet Cal continues to pine for her, and since this is a romantic comedy, where the rule seems to be that the man is always at fault no matter what the woman does, he has to give a big speech, admit all his flaws, and say he’s sorry.  Emily never once has to apologize, is never once asked to show remorse for her actions, but Cal - who, for all we know, did nothing wrong - has to go through months and months of emotional turmoil for a woman who is clearly not worth the trouble. 

What’s most disappointing about this story is how much it squanders Steve Carell.  I truly believe he is one of the most talented comedians of our time, not just because he’s funny, but because he can be vulnerable and honest and open like few other actors can.  He puts those talents to use here, and there are a few scenes where Carell is so good that he almost makes up for the film’s flaws.  But then the script will demand that Cal perform a random bit of slapstick, or do something very stupid, or suddenly become mean, or turn into The Office’s Michael Scott for five minutes.  He’s a tremendously inconsistent character, and not even the best actor in the world could salvage the part.  Carell isn’t the world’s greatest actor, but he’s certainly one of the best working today, and he deserves a whole hell of a lot more than this. 

But wasting Steve Carell and telling a stupid, trite love story would merely earn this film a C- or a D+ in my book.  No, there are many, many, many more problems on display here, creating a relentless hurricane of awfulness that lasts from beginning to end.  Ryan Gosling, another fine actor trying his best, is saddled with a strange part; we learn literally nothing about his character until over an hour into the film.  When he appears, all we know is that he’s a well-dressed ladies-man.  We are not told why he wants to help Cal, and it’s very awkward for a character to go through half a film with no discernible motivations.  His story arc starts once Emma Stone’s character enters the picture; she initially rejects him at the bar, but later comes back for a one-night stand.  Instead, Gosling and Stone wind up falling in love, and the first scene of their courtship is the best sequence in the film, taking a very honest look at both of these character’s flaws and the emotional healing they need to undergo.  It’s brilliantly written and acted, and feels like something out of a far better movie, a movie I would gladly pay money to see.

Gosling and Stone’s story doesn’t really get any weaker from here - although there’s a ridiculous M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist involving Stone’s character that made me want to bang my head against the wall - but the fact that it’s introduced over an hour into the film really hurts the story.  I can envision an improved version of the film that focuses squarely on Carell and Gosling, putting their stories parallel.  Both, after all, are about emotional healing.  The film has no interest in highlighting these parallels, and instead uses the Gosling/Stone relationship to create more lazy plot contrivances in the last act.  It’s disappointing, and squanders another two very fine performers.

But the worst part of the film by far, the most shockingly foolish story I’ve ever seen in a romantic comedy, involves Cal’s son Robbie.  I detested this character, and would rather watch a marathon session of Jar-Jar’s greatest hits rather than sit through a second of Robbie’s story.  The child actor - Jonah Bobo - is terrible, precocious without any sense of humanity, but the script doesn’t do him any favors.  For some reason, Robbie is positioned as the voice of reason in the film, giving advice on love to his father, advice that Cal actually uses.  I have no tolerance for stories that cast the kid as the wise old sage to begin with, but even if Robbie’s ‘wisdom’ wasn’t grating, it would be undermined by his disturbing fixation on the family’s babysitter. 

In some stories, a kid with a crush on a teenage girl can be sweet and innocent, and I think that’s what the writers went for here.  In Robbie’s first scene, however, he explains how he enjoys masturbating to a picture he took of the the babysitter’s face!  He enthusiastically tells her all about it.  That’s not charming or cute: it’s depraved.  Robbie never does something so unbelievably creepy again, but he also fails to take ‘no’ for an answer any of the numerous times the babysitter calmly explains how she can’t date a 13-year-old.  Robbie should be undergoing therapy - he’s clearly going to grow up to be a stalker and/or rapist - and I have no idea why the filmmakers believed he should be a likable presence, let alone why his advice on love is in any way valid.  Worst of all, I think Robbie gets more screen-time than any character other than Cal.  It’s as if the filmmakers are daring the audience to run away.

The babysitter herself, played innocently enough by Analeigh Tipton, is another troubling character.  She is in love with Cal, something the film tries to play for laughs by centering many contrived plot points around the crush, including a very unsettling scene where the babysitter takes naked photos of herself to send to Cal.  As you might imagine, the pictures don’t reach the intended recipient, and “hilarity” ensues.  Here’s the thing: when dealing with a relationship that, if consummated, would in fact be statutory rape, you can’t play the story for laughs.  You simply can’t.  When a high-school girl becomes interested in the father of the kids she babysits, it’s an inherently serious issue, because there is no possible scenario where that crush could end well.  Making a big joke out of it is insulting, dirty, and low, and I am appalled that this made it past a studio boss in the ultra politically-correct world of 2011. 

Then again, I’m appalled this movie was made in the first place.  Apart from one scene between Stone and Gosling, every single moment in the film rings hollow and false; it is empty and inane from start to finish, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the filmmakers felt compelled to add the horrifying Robbie character and a depraved statutory romance subplot into the mix just to make the film as excruciating as possible.  I feel bad for all the performers in the movie, because I don’t think any single actor drops the ball; most of them, especially Stone, Gosling, and Carell, try very hard.  Like the audience, they were let down by the film, and they should be just as disappointed as the rest of us.  

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