Crazy, Stupid, Love is a good film that never quite becomes a very good film, even though it sometimes flirts with greatness—especially when Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are onscreen. It’s a film that tries to do too much, and tries to do it too neatly. The problem lies with Dan Fogelman’s screenplay. It has merits—clever dialogue, some good characters, a pleasingly humanistic tone—but it also suffers from a more-than-slightly sitcom mentality that insists everything can be nicely tidied up (assuming we forget some subordinate characters) in two hours of movie. The idea of tackling a multi-character set of love stories (the types described by the title) isn’t unreasonable. Richard Curtis did it splendidly with Love Actually (2003). Garry Marshall did it with considerably less success with Valentine’s Day (2010). Thankfully, this is closer to the former, though still a long way from being in that league.
Cal (Steve Carell) is—he thinks—a happily married man. At dinner one night, his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) tells him she wants a divorce. On the ride home, she insists on confessing that she’s slept with a co-worker, David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon). Cal does the only sensible thing—he jumps out of the car. Talked back into the car by Emily, he returns home with her where he announces the situation to son Robbie (Jonah Bobo, Zathura), daughter Molly (Joey King, Ramona and Beezus) and babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton, The Green Hornet). (As it turns out Robbie has a crush on Jessica, who in turn has a crush on Cal.)
Soon Cal has moved into a featureless apartment and has taken to going to a bar, drinking to excess and telling anyone who will—and in some cases won’t—listen about his wife and David Lindhagen. This changes when Jacob (Ryan Gosling)—a very successful ladies’ man who never leaves the bar alone, either takes pity on Cal, or is simply fed up with hearing about David Lindhagen—takes him under his wing and remakes him into at least a potential babe magnet. Using a mix of Jacob’s advice and his own ideas, he manages to score with a lonely—and ultimately rather odd—schoolteacher, Kate (Marisa Tomei), starting him down the path towards an easy, if not exactly fulfilling, dating life.
Now, off to the side of this is Hannah (Emma Stone), a woman that Jacob unsuccesfully hit on before, and who is devoted to Richard (Josh Groban) for some inexplicable reason. Circumstances, however, find her finally taking Jacob up on his earlier offer, which, owing to the kind of movie we’re in, ends up meaning more to both of them than either ever imagined. Even though this is such a foregone conclusion that there are no surprises, their relationship and performances are quite the best thing in the movie. It would be unfair to ignore that part of why this works is Fogelman’s dialogue, but it’s Gosling and Stone that really make these scenes shine.
Of course, the film also has to contend with the Jessica-Robbie plotline, the Jessica-Cal plotline, the Emily-David Lindhagen plotline and the inevitable Cal-Emily plotline. Some of this works. Some of it doesn’t quite. And some of it feels perfunctory and sitcomish. The performances help, as do a couple of amusing surprises (that, in retrospect, were obviously set up from the start), but a lot of what keeps the film agreeable is the clever direction of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. That anyone can mostly compress the requisite romantic-comedy gloomy bits into a series of stylish moving shots from one character to the next is a notable accomplishment. Yes, I went in wanting to love this film and came out only liking it, but these days that’s not too shabby. Rated PG-13 for coarse humor, sexual content and language.